Euthanasia: Lethal dose has fearful consequences
On Wednesday, a Senate committee will hear evidence on a euthanasia bill that would allow some people to be given a lethal injection on compassionate grounds.
I understand why some people want this. It's often because someone they've known and loved has had a “hard dying”. Or because they are exhausted from caring for someone who is dying very slowly. Or because they are afraid of their own decline.
I sympathise with these reasons. I know that those who support euthanasia are not all grizzly Dr Deaths. This challenges me to think about what “a good death” means and how our community responds to the elderly, frail, disabled and dying.
But, however well-meaning, I don't think giving people a lethal dose is the answer.
Reason and experience show that euthanasia can't be made safe, because no law can prevent abuse in this area. In places like Holland and Belgium the numbers being medically killed are escalating and the range of cases keeps expanding beyond the “last resorts” for which it was first sold to the public.
Now people who aren't terminally ill, aren't even physically ill, people who haven't volunteered or can't volunteer, can legally be killed in those places and some want to extend it further – for example, to long-term prisoners and children.
Attempts to limit euthanasia by legalising and then regulating it have failed everywhere it's been tried. You can't prevent the subtle or overt pressure to request euthanasia. You can't stop people feeling or being made to feel they are a burden. You can't stop bean counters and over-stressed hospitals thinking some people should just hurry up and die.
Euthanasia is not just a private matter, because it draws medical professionals, regulators and the whole community to the bedside. It makes us all complicit. It asks us all to agree that some people are better off dead and that our laws and health professionals should make them dead.
Once we've accepted that some old people can be killed, why not some others? Why should it be restricted to the very sick? What about younger people who want it or those who aren't terminally ill? People who are just sick of life? People who are unconscious or too young or disabled to consent? It's not that I'm a nervous “slippery-sloper”, it's just a matter of following the logic of the argument for giving some people a lethal dose.
Having undermined the principles that doctors never kill patients and that our state will not sanction killing, we will have changed what doctors are and what our justice system is. We will have changed how we relate to the “unwanted” people.
“Of course he'd say that, he's a bishop.” But it's not just Christian leaders who worry about these things. Many believers, many secular thinkers, share in common the idea that you should never kill innocent people. Human dignity, human rights, human “unkillability”, can't be lost or volunteered away. They don't depend on how healthy, useful or wanted you are.
Palliative Care Australia says that were all Australians given access to good palliative care they would be able not only to live well in their illness, but to die well too. My pastoral experience concurs: instead of signalling to people that their life is not worth living, we can and should ease their sense of meaningless in suffering. Sadly, many people lack such care at the end. Compassion demands that we offer everyone such real care, even when it's hard, rather than a lethal injection.
Euthanasia cannot be made safe. It makes vulnerable people more vulnerable and suffering people suffer more. Surely we can do better in Australia than inviting them to “volunteer” for early death.
Most Reverend Anthony Fisher is Catholic Archbishop-Elect of Sydney