OPINION: by Peter Kavanagh MLCNews Weekly
Why we should not legalise euthanasia
, November 13, 2010
Support for euthanasia is motivated by compassion, but it is clear that any conceivable good that could come from legalising euthanasia would be far outweighed by its harmful consequences.
Euthanasia is rarely about suicide - it is not about people killing themselves; it is about the ending of another person's life.
It undermines the principle that another person's life is of such value that it may be taken only in the individual or collective defence of life itself. Legalising euthanasia would reduce the protection that is provided by our legal system and by dominant social attitudes.
The principle that life is of inestimable value has contributed to a sense of awe over the taking of another's life. That awe, and the consequent inhibition and reluctance at the taking of another life, would be diminished if euthanasia were legalised.
Even more profound and disturbing would be the effect on how people see themselves. Famous proponents of euthanasia have argued that it would be a selfless act to volunteer. However, the elderly and sick already fear being a burden on their loved ones and on the community. Wouldn't the knowledge that some other elderly and sick people are volunteering to be killed cause some of the elderly and sick to view continuing to live as selfishness?
In addition to the implicit pressure that euthanasia would bring to bear on the vulnerable themselves, there would be explicit pressure from other people. Euthanasia would allow some to seek the deaths of others through the simple application of gentle encouragement. It would probably not be in the form of a demand; it would not be angry or direct. Betrayal, as we know, is almost always done with a kiss.
We could imagine, for example, a man going to see his mother-in-law. He might say something like, "You know, you have had this problem, this diabetes, for a while now. You are a good age, you are over 60 years old and getting on. Don't you think you ought to tell them that you have had enough and that you cannot take it any more?"
The case for euthanasia presumes that a person in severe pain is in a position to make rational, monumental decisions. In fact, of course, a person in this condition is in precisely the kind of state which prevents him or her from making a life-and-death decision.
This case for euthanasia also presumes that medical science can make consistently accurate diagnoses and prognoses. In recent years, two high-profile cases in Australia involving euthanasia have demonstrated a 100 per cent failure rate in medical diagnoses and prognoses. In both cases, while alive, the deceased had been diagnosed as dying from their illnesses. In both cases, autopsies after their deaths by euthanasia revealed that neither of them had had terminal illnesses.
Legalised euthanasia presumes that a suffering person may revoke a certificate of request to be killed. Do we have any idea at all of what is going through the mind of a person who has lost consciousness? What of the sufferer who has changed his or her mind but is unable to express those new wishes because of physical incapacity? Under "voluntary euthanasia" schemes such people will be killed without their consent.
In the euthanasia debate "dignity" seems to refer to continence and a lack of pain. Isn't there actually more dignity in a life lived to its natural conclusion, possibly in spite of pain and incontinence?
Whatever safeguards are initially imposed will be eroded over time because once it becomes accepted that killing people can be "assisting" them, then the floodgates are opened and restraints and inhibitions on the taking of imperfect lives are washed away.
Advances in palliative care now make it possible for the vast majority of people to experience a fulfilling and relatively pain-free death. Legalising euthanasia would detract from the considerable achievements being made in palliative care.
In Victoria, a person may legally refuse life-prolonging treatment and keep taking only pain-relieving medication. This is entirely proper, because in such a situation the patient will be killed by his or her illness and not through the intervention of another person as is the case with euthanasia.
Legalising euthanasia would have a wide range of profoundly detrimental effects. It would diminish the protection offered to the lives of all. It would allow the killing of people who do not genuinely volunteer to be killed, and any safeguards, although initially observed, would inevitably weaken over time.
There would be other long-term consequences of legalising euthanasia that we cannot yet envisage. We can be sure that these consequences would be pernicious, however, because they would emanate from an initiative which, while nobly motivated, is wrong in principle - attempting to deal with the problems of human beings by killing them.Peter Kavanagh MLC is the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) state upper house MP for Western Victoria.