June 21st 2008

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: 'Peak oil': Apocalypse now?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Whither the Nationals?

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: What happens after cheap credit, oil and food?

SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS: Rudd grants special rights to same-sex couples

FAMILY POLICY: Home truths about working families

EUTHANASIA: Assisted suicide: safeguards or naivety?

NATIONAL SECURITY: Soviet bloc espionage: setting the record straight

DEFENCE: Should Australia have nuclear defence capability?

CHINA: Beijing muzzles protests over Sichuan earthquake

UNITED STATES: Is Obama equipped to lead the free world?

CULTURE: How political correctness threatens Australian culture

ART: The downward spiral of modern art

Barack Obama's oratory (letter)

Why cutting Australian emissions won't work (letter)

Baby imports? (letter)

Short-term stupidity (letter)

CINEMA: New Narnian epic Prince Caspian surpasses expectations

BOOKS: INKLINGS OF HEAVEN: C.S. Lewis And Eschatology, by Sean Connolly

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Assisted suicide: safeguards or naivety?

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, June 21, 2008
Once assisted suicide is legalised, it is not long before demands are made to water down or remove the "ample safeguards" that accompany its introduction, writes Tim Cannon.

As a federal senate committee considers the merits of Greens Senator Bob Brown's proposal to exhume the Northern Territory's defeated euthanasia laws, a second front in the high-stakes battle over assisted suicide legislation in Australia has opened up in the Victorian Legislative Council. There, Greens MLC Colleen Hartland has introduced a bill which would legalise assisted suicide in Victoria, and would almost certainly precipitate a nation-wide push by supporters for similar legislation in every Australian jurisdiction.

So far, it would seem that supporters of the bill have sought victory by stealth, allaying public and political concerns with soothing words of appeasement. The message is clear: this legislation is no cause for concern for the Australian people; it is safe.

Such were the repeated assurances of Hartland two weeks ago at a public information forum on the proposed legislation. The bill, she said, contained more than ample safeguards against any slide down euthanasia's proverbial "slippery slope". In front of a sympathetic audience, she laboured the point: Colleen Hartland would only support a bill which included rigorous, impregnable safeguards.

There is no reason to doubt Hartland's sincerity: the bill does dedicate significant attention to "safeguarding" the process by which Victorians will be able to gain access to legally prescribed lethal drugs.

But there is every reason to doubt Hartland's familiarity with the complex issues which lie beneath the apparently compassionate veneer of "physician-assisted dying", as its supporters are now calling it. The Green parliamentarian had little to do with the drafting of the bill, and appears to have been asked to oversee its introduction in the upper house for tactical reasons only.

Indeed, it seems clear that, despite her assurances of rigorous safeguards, Hartland is woefully ignorant of the reality which is plainly evident in nations where euthanasia and assisted suicide are currently legal: expansion of the law is simply inevitable.

The Netherlands provides a compelling case in point. There, in 2002, legislation was enacted allowing assisted suicide, with "tough" safeguards restricting the practice to voluntary cases where patients were terminally or incurably ill, were experiencing unbearable suffering, and had consulted several doctors before making the decision.

Seriously ill newborn babies

Today in the Netherlands, euthanasia is practiced legally on seriously ill newborn babies, a far cry from the consenting, terminally ill adults covered by the original legislation. Some mentally impaired patients - including Alzheimer's sufferers - have also been awarded the right to commit suicide with a doctor's help.

These developments should come as no surprise: agitation for wider access to assisted suicide and euthanasia has been a constant of Dutch politics since the enactment of the initial legislation in 2002. Just days after the legislation passed through the parliament, Dutch health minister Els Borst publicly pleaded the case for suicide-on-demand, including for persons who were not sick at all. Her call was echoed in a 2004 report commissioned by the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG).

Glancing further afield we may note that, in Switzerland, courts ruled in 2007 that the right to assisted suicide should be extended to include the mentally ill. The decision arose from a case concerning a 53-year-old man suffering from a serious bipolar affective disorder.

In a similar vein, influential US journal The Hastings Center Report ran an editorial in 2007 by lawyer and bioethics commentator Jacob M. Appel arguing that "the principles favouring legal assisted suicide lead logically to the extension of these rights to some mentally ill patients".

Unnerving flaw

Assisted suicide remains illegal in the US in all but one state - Oregon. There, the seemingly innocuous "Death With Dignity Act" - on which the current Victorian bill is chiefly based - revealed an unnerving flaw last week, when lung cancer patient Barbara Wagner received a letter from the Division of Medical Assistance Programs informing her that, although the Oregon Health Plan would not cover her oncologist-prescribed medication, it would cover doctor-assisted suicide, should she choose that option.

Over in the UK, attempts at legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide have so far been unsuccessful although the practice remains a hot-button issue.

In 2006, Len Doyal, an emeritus professor of medical ethics and a member of the British Medical Association's ethics committee, made a controversial contribution to the debate, publishing a paper pushing not just for assisted suicide, but also for non-voluntary euthanasia, suggesting that "regulated, intentional active killing can have a proper place in good medical practice".

Returning home, one cannot overlook Australia's own voluntary suicide guru, Dr Philip Nitschke, who, in a 2001 interview with American news journal National Review, suggested that a "'peaceful pill' should be available in the supermarket so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing...".

Nitschke, who remains Australia's best known and most influential assisted suicide advocate, has carved out a career flouting the law by propagating innovative means and methods of suicide to suicidally-inclined audiences around the world.

None of the above-mentioned scenarios - unrestricted assisted suicide, non-voluntary euthanasia (including the killing of infants), suicide for the depressed and the mentally-ill, or state-funded suicide in lieu of state-funded treatment - should penetrate MLC Hartland's indomitable safeguards; under the current bill they should be excluded without exception.

But the law is fluid. Once enacted, safeguards can change.

By pushing to enact a "safe", non-threatening form of assisted suicide, advocates are merely seeking a stronghold on the "right" side of the law. Currently, all assisted suicide is illegal in Australia. Currently, the fundamental legal and social principle - that persons should not kill other persons, or help them to kill themselves - remains intact.

But once that principle is broken, the question changes dramatically. The debate will no longer concern whether we should kill the sick (or help them to kill themselves); it will be a matter of whom we should kill and when. Once that principle is broken, the Nitschkes and the Doyals and the Borsts of this world will push and push until the law condones - and tacitly encourages - suicide-on-demand for all.

Once that principle is broken, advocates of assisted suicide will have room to move. But it is a strong, firm principle, the bedrock of civilisation as we know it. And suicide activists know they must break it. That is why they are pushing so hard.


I wonder whether Colleen Hartland is familiar with the plight of seriously ill infants in the Netherlands, and whether she has considered that Australian children may one day meet the same fate.

I wonder whether she is aware that, if this bill is passed into law, there are politicians, academics, and other influential Australians who will vigorously pursue the watering-down and removal of the very safeguards she has proposed. And they will not stop until they have their way.

- Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.

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