precautionary principle – n: the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous (World English Dictionary).
Newly appointed Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings’s commitment to supporting euthanasia and assisted suicide in that state’s parliament has returned the right-to-die issue to centre-stage in the Apple Isle.
The Labor/Green alliance, forged by her predecessor David Bartlett with Greens leader Nick McKim, will no doubt be gratified in the next few months by the introduction of yet another euthanasia bill – among other controversial initiatives, one suspects.
So why are euthanasia and assisted suicide being raised yet again? Tasmania has already had two parliamentary inquiries into the subject over the last 13 years.
In 1998, the Joint Standing Committee on Community Development’s Inquiry into the Need for Legislation in Tasmania on Voluntary Euthanasia for the Terminally Ill clearly and emphatically rejected euthanasia as a bad idea, as did a 2009 committee inquiry set up to examine McKim’s own Dignity with Dying Bill.
While the 2009 inquiry dealt specifically with the bill before the Tasmanian parliament, it inescapably reiterated the findings of the broader 1998 inquiry.
The earlier inquiry produced a report which deserves to be read by anyone interested in the issue. Certainly, it should be at the top of every Tasmanian MP’s reading list.
Consider the 1998 inquiry’s finding #7: “The Committee found that the codification of voluntary euthanasia legislation could not adequately provide the necessary safeguards against abuse.” (Page 6: executive summary).
Remember, this is a comment about euthanasia in general – not about a particular euthanasia bill. The 1998 inquiry’s conclusion has been amply vindicated by the mounting evidence of abuse from overseas jurisdictions where euthanasia is practised.
As the inquiry and overseas experience both demonstrate, euthanasia legislation can never be made safe from abuse. Nor is there any assurance to be had from the much-promised “safeguards” that would supposedly accompany such legislation.
As American bioethicist Wesley J. Smith once observed, safeguards are really only included so as to make legislators (and all the rest of us into the bargain) feel somewhat at ease about legislating for killing.
It is noteworthy that the 2009 inquiry should have made the following observation: “The Dying with Dignity Bill 2009 has been described as containing insufficient safeguards or for having too many safeguards to enable a sufferer seeking assistance to end their life.” (Page 6: Finding #2).
How could a bill simultaneously be criticised for having too many or too few safeguards? We can understand the risks of “insufficient safeguards” in terms of the findings of the earlier inquiry, but what are we to make of the counter-claim by supporters of euthanasia that McKim’s bill contained too many?
South Australian upper house Greens parliamentarian, Mark Parnell MLC, has given us a clue in some of the speeches he delivered during his failed attempts to pass euthanasia bills in SA’s Legislative Council during 2009/10:
• “One of the dilemmas that we have got is that we want safeguards, but we do not simply want to put obstacles in the way of people so that they cannot ever use it. We have got to get the balance right.” (2009).
• “I know that some people will not be happy until enough hurdles are put in place to make the laws unworkable, and that is always the tension in law reform like this. We want safeguards. We want strong safeguards, but the safeguards need to have a purpose behind them, and the purpose needs to be the prevention of misuse or abuse.” (2010).
• “In terms of some of the comments that other members made, the Hon. Ann Bressington, as she did last time, has sympathy and support for some of the concepts in voluntary euthanasia and, in particular, the people in the terminal phase of a terminal illness. That might be something that we need to revisit: whether the eligibility criteria is (sic) simply too broad for members of parliament to accept, but that will be a decision for another day.” (2010).
Parnell faces a dilemma. Not enough safeguards would mean that his bill would fail to attract enough votes to pass. Too many safeguards would render his bill ineffective in terms of its stated aims.
His suggestion that “we have got to get the balance right” fails to acknowledge the impossibility of drafting a bill that could prevent any abuse.
The inexhaustible variations in a suffering patient’s personal circumstances and medical diagnoses alone should tell us that – not to mention the risks of placing too much trust in human nature.
So, if we consider various proposed safeguards as points along a line, we could observe that moving toward fewer safeguards increases the risk of abuse, while swinging back towards more safeguards, while certainly decreasing risk, can never remove risk entirely.
This would seem to be a decisive argument for retaining the status quo – that is, a firm no to euthanasia. But on our imaginary line of safeguards, the starting or “zero point”, where euthanasia is illegal, is not a place where no risk exists. As Parnell also acknowledges, euthanasia already exists in some form, with and without a patient’s consent.
It is merely, therefore, only a point beyond which we have not yet made legal an opportunity for abuse, pure and simple.
It would seem prudent, then, that the precautionary principle should apply in the forthcoming euthanasia debate in Tasmania. It should fall to Premier Giddings, or to whomever else it is that sponsors the new bill, to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the proposed legislation will guarantee no risk of abuse.
The use of this principle is an accepted standard across the globe in many spheres of activity (such as environmental protection and drug approval), so why not in matters of life and death?
There should always be a higher burden of proof demanded from those pressing for change than from those defending the status quo.
Nothing personal, but one has to wonder whether the new Tasmanian premier is up to it.
Paul Russell is campaign director of HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. URL: www.noeuthanasia.org.au