June 27th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Peter Costello calls it a day

EDITORIAL: New South Wales puts Australian firms first

VICTORIA: The threats to Victoria's electricity and water

GENERAL MOTORS: Restructured GM won't thrive without new mindset

UNITED STATES I: Obama's celebrity-style media spectacle

UNITED STATES II: Cairo speech impressed Western media, not Islamic world

IRAN: US conciliatory approach to Tehran backfires

ASIA/PACIFIC REGION: East Timor consolidates stable democratic government

UNITED STATES: Husband and wife spied for communist Cuba

SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY: How science can diminish humanity

EUTHANASIA: The perils of euthanasia "with safeguards"

MEN AND IDEAS: Bob Santamaria's role in Australia's culture wars

OPINION: The Japanese threat facing Australia in 1942

Failure of stimulus packages (letter)

Russia's population crisis (letter)

IPCC's political agenda (letter)

MEDIA: ABC Chaser's war on common decency

CINEMA: Hollywood morality for an audience of fools - State of Play

BOOKS: SHAKESPEARE'S SHATTERED YOUTH: Laming or Elixir? by Lucy Sullivan

BOOKS: CROSSING HITLER: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand, by Benjamin C. Hett

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The perils of euthanasia "with safeguards"

by Paul Russell

News Weekly, June 27, 2009
Moves to legalise euthanasia crop up at regular intervals in parliaments around Australia. The latest example is Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim MP's Dying with Dignity Bill 2009, introduced into the island-state's House of Assembly on May 26. In this article, Paul Russell looks at what is likely to happen should euthanasia ever be legalised.

The word euthanasia simply means "a good death" - something we all wish for. In fanciful moments, we might all envisage what that might mean - how we might prefer to die. But we know that life is not always like that.

It might be a cliché to say that death is simply part of life, but we all know there's no avoiding the inevitable. Yet in our Australian culture we talk little about death and don't deal with death anywhere near as well as we might.

We live longer and better than we once did, and we are constantly urged to tackle obesity, smoking, diabetes, drug use, binge-drinking, etc., with a view to enjoying healthier, happier lives.

Coping with suffering

Yet, generally speaking, we understand little about what might happen to us should our health fail, or if we experience a terminal illness or the deterioration of our faculties and functions, as sometimes happens with advanced ageing. How will we cope? How will our loved ones cope?

These are important questions. There is no "one size fits all" solution. Each of us is a unique individual person and, even though the progress of any illness or deterioration has a generally understood pattern, no-one can predict its duration or intensity.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that we should fear these unknowns; that we should, somehow, want to control the uncontrollable?

It is this natural desire for control in the face of unknowns, such as potential pain and loss of faculties, that seems to provide pro-euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitschke with a platform and an audience for his so-called "exit" strategies.

It is a pity that palliative care services, for which South Australia is a world leader, do not enjoy the same sort of exposure. These services are the really good news that deserves to be heard, as are the countless stories of families and loved ones who valued the care, dignity and compassion that they have received.

Recently, two eminent palliative-care specialists interstate boldly declared that their "patients don't die in pain". It is true: pain can be effectively managed.

But palliative care is much more than just good management of pain. It is also about a frank and open discussion about treatments, about the patient's needs and desires, all with a view to pastoral care and comfort for all concerned. It should come as no surprise that, in such circumstances, patients rarely bring up euthanasia; their fears are allayed and their sense of control restored.

Euthanasia advocates often talk about personal autonomy, saying such things as, "It should be my choice about how I die." They speak as though a law to allow for euthanasia wouldn't affect anyone who chose otherwise.

This is a folly. Why is it, then, that in the Netherlands many older people carry on their person cards that say that they do not want to undergo euthanasia?

Many in the Netherlands actually fear going to a hospital or visiting a GP. Haven't the Dutch simply replaced the normal fear of pain and death from natural causes with a fear of being deliberately killed?

We are expected to believe that it should be reasonably simple to enshrine "safeguards" in euthanasia law to ensure that people are not killed against their will or to ensure that only those in the end stages of a terminal illness would qualify.

In 1981, a decision of the Rotterdam court made provision for voluntary euthanasia under guidelines similar to those described in recent South Australian bills. However, a review conducted a decade on found that, in practice, more than one third of people killed as a result of euthanasia did not consent to the procedure.

The following year, the interpretation of the guidelines was broadened to include euthanasia for handicapped newborns, and even for conditions such as depression or for those who simply did not want to live any more. This was followed by provision for euthanasia for 12 to 16-year-olds.

Once we allow a "quality of life" argument to become a guiding principle in limited end-of-life situations, how will we prevent euthanasia from becoming a universal right to kill anyone who doesn't want to live?

- Paul Russell is from the Office for Family and Life in the Catholic archdiocese of Adelaide. (This article first appeared in the Southern Cross newspaper).

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