Euthanasia and the Giddings/McKim bill get a celebrity endorsement from TV personality, Tracey Spicer in the Griffith Journal of Law & Human Dignity. Tracey Spicer’s story about the death of her mother is well known. Her mother passed away in clearly difficult circumstances in 1999. In June 2008, Spicer wrote about her experiences in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The story surfaced again, perhaps coincidentally at about the time the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill 2013 was about to be debated in the NSW Legislative Council. Spicer is a celebrity ambassador for the euthanasia movement and she also ‘travels the country talking about… (among other things) voluntary euthanasia.’
Spicer repeats, almost parrot fashion, the latest iteration of the pro-euthanasia mantra in this country. She is unwavering in her confidence that all is well in those countries and jurisdictions that allow euthanasia and assisted suicide, blithely observing that, ‘In each of these jurisdictions, the laws are civil, safe, functioning, and to the benefit of the common good.’
“If I lose control of my faculties, put me down like a dog”.
In the article, Spicer vaguely attributes the use of this quote to her family. In the 2013 article she has this from her mother:
"If I lose control of my faculties then put me down," you said, clearly. "They do it to dogs. Why can't they do it with us, as well?"
Yes, it’s a saying and it is often little more than an expression in anguish and, as such, perhaps understandable. But does any person really want to be treated like a dog? When we talk of human dignity surely being treated like a dog is beneath the respect we should have for each other’s dignity – at the very least in recognition of our human rights. But here’s the rub, Spicer, after arguing that ‘our current legal framework will prove increasingly inadequate with our ageing population’, concludes that, ‘Fundamentally, the right to die is our greatest human right. It must be respected.’ Well, either this right-to-die, so-called, is fundamental, as Spicer suggests, or it is not; it cannot be predicated upon a changing demographic. This is ludicrous.
Nowhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a right-to-die mentioned. A right-to-life is mentioned and, in concert with the two preceding rights, forms the basis of all rights. Some have falsely argued that if there is a right-to-life that the reverse must also be true. Not so. The existence of rights does not and cannot imply the reverse.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. If I willingly make myself a slave of a person, that person is in breach of my rights. The fact that I willed it to be so changes nothing. If I submit myself willingly to be assaulted or otherwise injured, the person committing the injury is in breach of the law and my human rights, regardless of my submission. I cannot give away these rights in this way for any reason; to do so would be denying my own intrinsic dignity as a person evidenced by the very fact that the perpetrator would be in breach of the law.
As alluded to, Articles One through Three can be read as the primary rights; the remainder of the rights expressed in the 1948 document can be seen as being predicated upon these three. Article One talks about the reality that, ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Article Two says that, ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind’.
Spicer then bravely takes on Professor John Finnis. Legal scholar and philosopher, specialising in the philosophy of law, Finnis is Professor of Law at University College, Oxford and at the University of Notre Dame, teaching jurisprudence, political theory, and constitutional law. Spicer calls into doubt his observation that euthanasia would, ‘create in our society a new structure of radical inequality with much resulting injustice and a gravely damaging impact on the common good.’
Spicer tellingly omits the preceding sentence in Finnis’ oration: “Unless doctors are to be committed to kill anyone and everyone who makes a stable and competent request for death, they are going to have to proceed on a classification of lives as worth living or not worth living,” In other words, doctors (and even the legislation depending on how it is expressed) would be treating different people with ‘radical inequality’, the ‘resulting injustice’ would diminish the right to equality of dignity. In Finnis’ terms, if we were to create a right-to-die, then we would be bound to make it accessible to all. Perhaps Dr Nitschke is right!
In 1998 the Tasmanian parliament’s Inquiry into the Need for Legislation in Tasmania on Voluntary Euthanasia for the Terminally Ill found that, the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia would pose a serious threat to the more vulnerable members of society and that the obligation of the state to protect all its members equally outweighs the individual’s freedom to choose voluntary euthanasia.
Here we see this need for equality of rights to be upheld countered against to the freedom to choose. Choice is incredibly important. It should be celebrated and honoured. But it can never extend past the point where it impinges upon someone else’s fundamental rights. That’s the point.
But, of course, this is all rather academic if, as Spicer and others claim, there’s nothing to worry about in the jurisdictions where such practices are legal. Spicer quotes in defence of her claim the 2007 study by Margaret Battin et al to the effect that there is no evidence of vulnerable groups being at heightened risk.
Battin’s study has been criticised by a number of academics (for example: Finlay & George, Jnl of Medical Ethics (2011) and Page A. Regent University Law Review (2009)) and analyses since that time, particularly in Belgium and The Netherlands, confirm that the law is not being adhered to, that vulnerable groups are over represented – particularly in cases where doctors do not complete the required legal notifications. This is covered extensively in Alex Schadenberg’s book: Exposing Vulnerable People toEuthanasia and Assisted Suicide (Connorcourt Press). Battin’s own testimony to the Irish Court in the Fleming case was also effectively ignored in the summary judgement: ‘The evidence from other countries shows that risks of abuse are all too real and cannot be dismissed as speculative or distant’.
Spicer cites the work of Australia 21 and two Queensland pro-euthanasia academics, White and Willmott. In what looks like a copycat modus operandi, their recent work ignored the studies cited in Schadenberg’s book, following the example of similarly skewed reports in the UK and Canada. Spicer says:
“Later this year, the Tasmanian Parliament will again consider legislation with even greater safeguards than those overseas. These include a requirement that the person is terminally ill, the involvement of two or more doctors, and multiple checks to ensure the patient is making the decision voluntarily.”
Whether or not the safeguards in the Giddings/McKim bill are ‘greater’ than those overseas is doubtful; in any case, why would they need to be so if there are no problems overseas? Moreover, there is no requirement in the bill that the person be terminally ill. There are no checks that can ever guarantee that the patient’s decision is entirely voluntary.
Spicer then develops a ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ theme by eschewing the works of Drs Nitschke and Kevorkian and citing as an ally in the cause for euthanasia laws, WA AMA President, Richard Choong. Choong publicly criticised Nitschke and his nitrogen death method in May of this year. Again, Spicer is selective. In relation to Nitschke’s ‘euthanasia machine’ as she calls it, she relates Choong’s comments in an ABC interview condemning such machines and then concludes that this is a clear reason for including the medical profession in euthanasia. Never mind that Choong also said ‘euthanasia is illegal for a good reason.’ And "That's why we have legislation protecting us against this."
The straw man also gets a Guernsey. “Those opponents often construct their arguments in terms of faith.” Perhaps religious leaders do that. Prof Finnis is a Catholic and lectures at a Catholic university too; but note that the focus of his lecture, quoted by Spicer, was essentially an encouragement to argue in the public square (against matters such as euthanasia) based on reason – not faith, using rational language.
Spicer returns to an appeal to this false notion of a right-to-die, asking the questions: “How dare anyone impinge on that right? Who has the authority to make others suffer?” I have already dealt with the first question, but the second is a shocking and entirely unjust emotive attempt to accuse those who oppose such legislation as being willfully responsible for human suffering. We’ve seen this many times before. It smacks of desperation and is entirely undignified.
Not satisfied with that broadside, Spicer takes a swipe at the medical staff in attendance when her mother died. “Mercy went missing in action.” she says. While admitting that the nurses ‘were kind’ she still sees fit to judge their motivation simply on the basis that they did not agree to do what she wanted; to kill her mother. In the 2008 article the author quotes Spicer as saying: "It soon became an obsession. Palliative care nurses were tackled in the corridor and asked whether they would assist in a murder." I imagine that these kinds of pressures are just part of the scenery that nurses and doctors learn to deal with – but questioning their commitment to mercy? Not on!
The question is, in terms of rights and dignity, whether they are enhanced or diminished by euthanasia laws. In talking about her mother’s difficulties, Spicer says that her mother ‘suffered the indignity of being carried to the toilet.’ For many people this is a daily occurrence. My brother-in-law lived his entire life having to be assisted in some ways with toileting; some of my friends also. Such difficulties don’t diminish dignity at all, but the subtle and not-so-subtle message that people living with disabilities hear from comments like Spicer’s is that ‘we don’t want to be like them.’ As one disability activist put it recently, not all disabled people are terminally ill, but all terminally ill people are disabled. Unintentional as it most likely was, such comments nevertheless call into question the rights and the dignity of disabled people. No wonder that many fear the advent of such legislation.