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Crossing the clear, bright line

By Paul Russell - posted Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Dutch journalist, Gerbert van Loenen once observed about euthanasia in his homeland that, 'Making euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide legal started a development we did not foresee. The old limit 'thou shalt not kill' was abandoned, a new limit is yet to be found.'

When we abandon the principle that the law (in this case the criminal code prohibitions on homicide) protects all of its citizens equally, as van Loenen observes, drawing a new line is arbitrary. More than that; it is likely to shift further in ways that perhaps the Dutch did not foresee but that we at least, can now reflect upon given their experiences.

Not that we necessarily need to look halfway across the globe to observe the phenomenon.


In South Australia only in this last week we saw that, notionally at least, something like half of the members of the House of Assembly seemed willing to support a bill that would have made euthanasia available to any adult who claimed that they were experiencing 'unbearable and hopeless suffering'.

No, we do not have euthanasia on the statute books; so how, you ask, is this an example of van Loenen's thesis?

South Australia has been the epicentre of euthanasia debate with something like 14 or 15 bills introduced over the last two decades - some of them simultanepously in both chambers. None of them have been as extreme as the bill mentioned. In hindsight, now that the bill seemingly will not progress further, the mover and the euthanasia lobby that supported it may now reflect that their project was overly ambitious; running well ahead of the zeitgeist.

And so it was. What shocked me, however, was the level of support it did receive. Five or ten years ago such a regime would have been dismissed far more easily.

The bill would have created a starting point for euthanasia similar to the Dutch law and almost identical to the Belgian statute. Yet the public discourse was largely framed around what we might call the 'classic cases' at the very end of life. Replete with personal stories, we were told, both implicitly and explicitly, that these were the kind of cases the bill was designed for. As with the Dutch law, according to van Loenen, there was a 'devil in the detail' in this bill that would provide for euthanasia in situations that the public could not forsee.

The question we need to be asking, always, is not 'who is the bill designed for?' but 'what will the bill allow?'. There is clearly public support for the idea of euthanasia, as evidenced in the polls, but the detail seems to escape scrutiny.


Such was the campaigning strategy adopted by Andrew Denton, his campaign called 'Go Gentle' and his co-beligerents, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. They jointly created an on-line campaign tool called 'BetheBill' where people could register to 'BetheBill' using their social media profiles and the automated structure would replace the pronoun 'person' in the text of the failed bill with their own name and send a copy of the thus amended bill to every South Australian member of parliament.

Nowhere does the 'BetheBill' website explain to the potential supporter that the bill in question would allow for euthanasia for any adult. All it says before a supporter clicks through to make it happen is: 'One day you, or someone you love, may be dying and want this choice. No Australian should be left to die in unrelievable pain.' It plays on the public perception that euthanasia would only ever be for a few 'hard cases'.

And so, email in boxes of members of parliament were clogged, for sometime, with virtually identical emails from people who had no real idea of what they were supporting. That many of these 'BetheBill' supporters came from interstate or overseas or were from fake facebook profiles such as that of 'Desmond Tutu' (who apparently lives in Sydney and uses the profile picture of Bozo the Clown) registered a level of cynicism and annoyance with a number of MPs.

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This article was first published on Hope.

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About the Author

Paul Russell is the Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide

Paul is also Vice Chair of the International Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Paul Russell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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