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Voluntary euthanasia is about choice and respect

By David Swanton - posted Thursday, 11 June 2015

It comes as no surprise that the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Christopher Prowse, has opposed euthanasia. What people in his position often fail to realise is that if you propose a position as a basis for public policy then your position and the basis for it ought to be, and will be, subjected to scrutiny. His and the Catholic Church’s ongoing opposition to euthanasia fails any objective analysis.

Euthanasia is defined as a deliberate act intended to cause the death of a patient, at that patient’s request, for what he or she sees as being in his or her best interests. The voluntary nature of euthanasia is implicit in this definition, and if society were to respect the informed views of those choosing voluntary euthanasia, then it should be permitted.

Mr Prowse and the Catholic Church should realise that voluntary euthanasia will not result in more people dying, but in fewer people choosing to suffer. Mr Prowse stated that ‘euthanasia is dangerous, which is one of the key reasons the Catholic Church has long opposed it’. He should have stopped at the first phrase, and then tried to make his arguments. Instead, he has subjected the Catholic Church to scrutiny.


It seems the Catholic Church does things because they have always been done that way and not because they are morally right. This is why the Church is still sexist (women cannot hold positions of power in the church), and homophobic (homosexual acts are acts of grave depravity). It is also morally perverse to advocate worshiping a God as something that is good, when that God, according to the Bible, has unjustly killed people, causes cancer in some children and causes others to suffer. With such a track record, the Catholic Church is poorly credentialed to make a moral case against euthanasia.

The first of Mr Prowse’s three arguments against euthanasia was that it would put pressure on vulnerable people to request euthanasia. This is a valid concern, but not one supported by evidence, given that regulatory options are available to mitigate any problems.

Brisbane euthanasia expert Professor Ben White was quoted in 2014 as saying that ‘a 2012 study had looked at whether men or women were dying more often and at the split between old and young, and people from different socio-economic backgrounds. It found no evidence to support concerns that legalising euthanasia would target the vulnerable’.

For many Australians, particularly those members of Exit International who have manufactured or procured their end-of-life drug of choice, suicide/euthanasia is a very easy option if they wanted it. What I hear from Exit members is that having a suicide/euthanasia drug gives them control and peace of mind (that they will have a good death if any medical condition worsens beyond what they can tolerate), and not pressure to use the drug.

Additionally, if there are concerns about vulnerable people, limits could be put on any regulatory framework for euthanasia, countering Mr Prowse’s second point that ‘acceptance of euthanasia cannot be limited’.

There will always be concerns about sensitive matters such as people’s wellbeing. Regulators should proscribe clinically depressed people and young people suffering from depression (please see organisations such as beyondblue or your physician) from accessing voluntary euthanasia.


Other limitations can be put on euthanasia. Favoured euthanasia regulatory systems require that a patient must request voluntary euthanasia and also be terminally ill in the first instance. However, a strong moral case could be made that even those without a terminal illness might wish to have a rational suicide. The debate about euthanasia and rational suicide ought to continue, and Dr Philip Nitschke will raise these and other matters at upcoming public forums and rational suicide/euthanasia workshops around Australia and overseas.

Mr Prowse’s third point was that ‘legal euthanasia would undermine the human dignity of all people by allowing us to think that death is a solution to serious and difficult conditions such as cancer, depression or Alzheimer's’. On the contrary, the reason why people choose voluntary euthanasia is to maintain their dignity and reduce their suffering. It is their choice about their life.

Why would someone’s dignity be undermined if somebody else chooses to shorten their life by perhaps ten days to reduce their suffering from cancer? While anybody’s death is the cause of much grief and sadness for loved ones, we should take some solace from the reduction in their suffering. To address Mr Prowse’s other concerns, the most favoured regulatory systems would prohibit depressed people and people with Alzheimer’s from accessing euthanasia (possibly through psychiatric assessments).

I agree with Mr Prowse about the importance of palliative care and it being available to those who need it. Of course, when a patient considers palliative care cannot meet their needs, then compassion, dignity and respect demand that voluntary euthanasia ought to be an option available to them.

Although over 80% of Australians, including a majority of Catholics, have continued to support the option of voluntary euthanasia over the years, the clergy and most politicians do not. Perhaps those opposing euthanasia should consider the principle of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. People generally dislike others interfering in their life, not respecting their views, telling them with whom they should have sex, or how much pain they should suffer when at the end of life. Consequently, people ought not dictate how others live or end their lives. Doing unto others what you would not want done unto yourself would be unethical.

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About the Author

David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.

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