Monday, 5 November 2012

Shifting sands in death debate

The Sydney Morning Herald has been continuing its run of articles on assisted suicide in the last few days. 

Giving some balance to the issue is another personal reflection from Shakira Hussein, a Melbourne Academic living with a disability. 

A Sydney Academic, Lyn Carson advocated for assisted suicide in the weekend edition. Her opening comments are a classic Orwellian attempt to shift the debate by changing the language: 

The debate about the right to a good death is not helped by use of the E-word. Euthanasia has some unfortunate historical connotations and is also inaccurate. Assisted dying is a more apt description because the choice belongs to patients. 

How is ‘assisted dying’ any more apt to conveying a patient’s choice than ‘euthanasia’, for example? 

Substitute phrases like as ‘assisted dying’ and ‘death with dignity’ might be a great marketing slogans to soften the hard edges of this debate (used exclusively by those who support legal change), but it won’t help us and any parliament debating the matter towards making sound judgement. 

Carson goes on to represent a favourite argument of Dr. Nitschke to attempt to draw us to the conclusion that the law is an ass: suicide is not illegal – but helping someone to suicide is. Ergo: we should change the law. 

Suicide is not illegal, true; but assisting in a suicide remains in our criminal codes precisely because once a third party becomes involved there is a risk of coercion and abuse. One need only reflect on the growing community concern over abuse of elderly people in most Western Countries, including Australia, to conclude that assisted suicide is a recipe for Elder Abuse. And while suicide may not be a crime, none of us has a right-to-die; there is no right to kill ourselves. 

Carson offers the model adopted in Oregon as the way forward; suggesting subtly that this US state has somehow got it right. She also suggests that Australians should be able to look to the experiences in all countries and states where euthanasia and/or assisted suicide is allowed to ‘see what rules suit their circumstances.’ A smorgasbord approach to the issue that Carson also suggests, will somehow overcome the ‘mismatch’ between public opinion and the decisions of our parliaments over many years. 

Carson is correct in her observation that there is something of a ‘mismatch’ between the results of parliamentary debates over many years and public opinion on the issue. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that, in respect to such debates, politicians are well aware of the gravity of the situation and, in my experience, do not take their roles lightly. So why the disparity? 

It is in our parliamentary debating chambers where MPs are tasked with informing themselves of exactly what is happening in places such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Oregon, that a thorough stock take of all the arguments pro and con is most likely. They’re not simply saying yes or no to a phone poll. And, indeed, it is when they get past the clever slogans and begin to weigh up the data; to consider how our most basic responsibility of protecting vulnerable citizens is compromised by euthanasia and assisted suicide law that they have repeatedly decided to exercise appropriate caution and support the status quo. An informed decision. 

Informed consent is an important principle in medicine as it is in many of life’s decisions. Informed decisions on such a complex subject can only be arrived at by those charged by electors with such a grave task and with full access to all the data. 

When Carson opens her article with such a lame attempt to change the language of the debate it’s hard to take her comments seriously. However, her arguments are part of an observable trend in these last week’s that suggest a policy shift in some in the right-to-die movements. As such, we take note. 

Changing from promoting euthanasia to a preference for assisted suicide as evidenced by Carson’s article and the earlier about face by the group, Doctors for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice, to the same end, is surely more about divining what our MPs might tolerate; as one MP admitted a few years ago – it’s seen as a good start. I would be skeptical of any claim to a moral epiphany here. 

The question that needs to be asked of the right-to-die groups is very simple: If you were successful in getting legislation for assisted suicide on the statute books, would you have a little party then pack up and all go home? And how likely is that?

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