December 25th 2010

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: China: absolute power corrupts absolutely

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Prime Minister Gillard's mishandling of WikiLeaks

UNITED STATES: WikiLeaks founder should face criminal charges in US

THE GREENS: Why Liberals and Labor must preference Greens last

EUTHANASIA: Wrong response to epidemic of isolation among seniors

CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: Why C.S. Lewis wrote his science fiction trilogy

RUSSIA: Will Putin challenge Medvedev in 2012?

TAIWAN: WikiLeaks rattle Taiwan's external relationships

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: Offended by the offended

ENVIRONMENT: Frog extinction: another 'global warming' myth

SEXUAL ANARCHY: From temptation to tolerance to approval

OPINION: Greens' flawed policies burden families

WikiLeaks 1 (letter)

WikiLeaks 2 (letter)

Logical flaws in push for same-sex marriage (letter)

A miracle for Nicholas? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Parents, police perplexed at rise in cyber-bullying / Stalin's American dupes exposed

CINEMA: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in 3D (rated PG)

BOOK REVIEW: THE TYRANNY OF GUILT: An Essay on Western Masochism, by Pascal Bruckner


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Wrong response to epidemic of isolation among seniors

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, December 25, 2010
It may be crass to say so, but the enduring hallmark of the assisted suicide lobby is that it will never say die. Just weeks ago, the South Australian parliament voted down yet another a bill to legalise euthanasia and medically assisted suicide in that state.

Undaunted, the South Australian health minister, John Hill, has suggested that future efforts at legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide should focus on providing a legal defence for doctors, rather than on the qualifying characteristics of the patient. A draft bill has reportedly been circulated for feedback, although a further bill has yet to be introduced.

In short: don't expect the defeat of the bill to put this issue to bed.

To my mind, there are numerous of reasons for opposing assisted suicide and euthanasia.

For one, it sends the horribly confused message that sometimes, and for some people, suicide is a valid option; that sometimes life is no longer worth living. Hardly an edifying example to the youth of the nation, where suicide is a major cause of death.

Meanwhile, for many doctors, helping a patient commit suicide jars uncomfortably with the fundamentals of the medical vocation: to heal, and to do no harm.

Doctors generally do not see themselves as death-agents, which explains the opposition of, among others, the Australian Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association and the World Medical Association to the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The close association of euthanasia and assisted suicide with eugenic and totalitarian political movements of the past also gives pause for thought. Let's just say that present-day German MPs could scarcely be more emphatic in their opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Then there is the inevitable slide from euthanasia and assisted suicide into "killing without consent" for those who are unable to choose suicide, but for whom the choice is made out of "compassion". Witness the routine "mercy killing" of newborn disabled children in the Netherlands.

Note also the staunch opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide mounted by disability rights groups such as Not Dead Yet and No Less Human. A "euthanased" patient faces obvious difficulties lodging a complaint for their unauthorised killing. These disability groups endeavour to kick up a fuss before it's too late.

And of course there is the inevitability of error in administering assisted suicide. Opponents of the death penalty point out that its irreversible and utterly final impact leaves no margin for human error. The same holds true for euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Any supposed "safeguards" are fallible, and therefore legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide would mean resigning ourselves to the erroneous killing of depressed, scared and lonely individuals who slip through the safeguards, but who really just needed better care or support (as documented in the Northern Territory and in the US state of Oregon).

This, to me, is the truly saddening part of the assisted suicide movement. Coated in the honeyed language of "dying with dignity" and "autonomy" and "the right to choose" is the sombre reality of a groundswell of mostly elderly Australians who are so terrified of how their final days, weeks or months might play out that they want to be able to make a rapid final exit.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide activists make up only a tiny minority of Australians, and yet they represent the tip of a lonely, alienated and anxious iceberg. There is an epidemic of isolation among older Australians.

We are wealthier and live longer than ever before, but ours is an age of social atomisation. Consumer culture exhorts us to embrace individualism and enjoy the moment, and it is doubtful that spending time with old fogies features very prominently on your average bucket list.

Historically, the elderly in most cultures were absorbed into the homes of their children in a sort of natural passing of the baton. As they became frailer and less independent, elderly parents leaned more on their grown-up children, contributing in turn to the rearing of (and imparting of lollies to) grandchildren, and to the general running of the family household.

Uncles and aunts also had a habit of moving in where the need arose. Whatever the pitfalls of such living arrangements, loneliness was not among them. Assisted suicide never got a look in.

This progression still plays out in some cultural strongholds, even here in Australia. But for the most part, older Australians today gravitate more towards retirement villages and nursing homes than to the homes of their children.

Out of the sight of their progeny, they are kept less in mind. Spending time with one's elderly relatives (let alone with strangers) has become optional. For many Australian seniors, this spells loneliness and isolation.

The good news is that, unlike terminal and incurable illness, loneliness and isolation are entirely treatable.

More importantly, I suspect that if the problem of loneliness and isolation among older Australians is tackled in earnest, then, in conjunction with the continuing advancements in pain relief and palliative care, the prospect of living with a terminal or incurable illness will become a whole lot more bearable for those who are presently terrified of dying a helpless, isolated and undignified death.

All that needs to be done is for those of us who are still blessed with good health to make the effort. We can start with our own family members.

We can be that someone who holds their hand, who listens to their long-winded stories, and who tells them that they'll have plenty of time to be dead, but that we want to make the most of the little time we have with them.

It won't always be fun, or immediately rewarding. In fact, it will often involve an excruciating drain of energy. Our efforts may even be met with resistance. Still, I've never met anyone who regretted spending too much time with an elderly friend or relative before they passed on. I know plenty who wish they had spent more.

But don't we all have better things to do? Not likely. Spending time with a lonely, dying relative or friend may just be the best thing you ever did. Compared to the grand mystery of death - that unknowable frontier - the minutiae of day-to-day living pale into insignificance.

Today's young Australians are among the wealthiest, freest and best-educated generations in the history of the human race. We can't just sit by and let the people who have made this country what it is languish in isolation as they meet the challenges of illness and old age.

Whether they like it or not (and I have a hunch that they might), we should be hoisting them high in their twilight years, like veteran footy-players on their final match day.

And if, like Derek Redmond in the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, all they have left to do is limp to the finish line in excruciating pain, then the least we can do is offer them a shoulder to lean on - perhaps to cry on - and make sure they make it all the way.

All around Australia, assisted suicide advocates have repeatedly tried and failed to persuade parliaments to give assisted suicide the imprimatur of the state. Given the obviously fraught nature of the issue, it is hard so say whether they will ever succeed. I sincerely hope they don't.

But whether they do or not, the mere existence of a euthanasia and assisted suicide movement should be enough to jolt the rest of us out of our indifference to the loneliness, suffering and desperation that so many Australians experience in their twilight years.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Australian opinion magazine, The Punch, November 24, 2010.

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