We set dangerous precedents when we allow one person to discriminate against another on the basis of a perception of the relative value of a life. None of us needs to look too far back in history and even in our current world to find the effects of such discrimination writ large.
Protective safeguards seem
to cover the medical profession
rather than the patient
Our elderly, sadly, have learnt to feel so. How many times have we seen and heard the word “burden” used in the same sentence as “the elderly”? Those for whom we all owe a debt of gratitude; those for whom we should focus attention and support bordering on the extravagant simply because they came before us, nurtured us and helped form us. Burdens?
It is the acceptance, even unconsciously, of that kind of message that places already vulnerable people at risk of the suggestion: “Well, Gran, there’s always …” Even if they are never coerced to an early and unnatural death, the very existence of that “choice” can create both an expectation and a resident fear.
The very use of the phrase, lives not worth living, sends chills down my spine, as it does to many others who either live with a disability or care for someone who does. My Irish colleague, Kevin Fitzpatrick, a paraplegic who recently succumbed to the ravages of cancer, would often tell a story that illustrates this well:
“When non-disabled people say they despair of their future, suicide prevention is the default service we must provide. Disabled people, by contrast, feel the seductive, easy arm of the few, supposedly trusted medical professionals, around their shoulder; someone who says, ‘Well you’ve done enough. No one could blame you’.”
A cautionary tale that invites us to think hard about the effect that condoning some suicides will have upon the young, the depressed and the lonely.
The euthanasia and assisted-suicide lobby know these real problems (and others) well. For the most part, they do not deny that they are real (though I have met some that do). And, in so far as I accept the genuine nature of their concern, to their credit, they offer “safeguards”, as we are told, to protect vulnerable people.
But I have never come across a “safeguard” that could guarantee safety for vulnerable people.
Safeguards; for whom?
“He would say that!” some may reply. But think for a moment; unless we describe, in the law, every possible illness and every possible remedy, what possibility is there that we can ensure safety? The variables are infinite and so are the vagaries of human nature expressed through a myriad of personal relationships, both good and bad.
What the supposed “safeguards” do well is to protect doctors. They are provided with immunity from prosecution for homicide or assisting in suicide if they comply with a set of procedures.
In Belgium a doctor was recently referred to justice over the euthanasia death of an older woman who was fit and well but who was grieving over the death of her favourite daughter. The story was chronicled in a TV documentary last year.
The doctor, Marc van Hoey, was referred to the law, not because the lady was not ill, not because there were alternatives available that were not explored (there were), but because he did not do the euthanasia “carefully”. In other words, he did not consult with a second doctor.
Dr van Hoey is on the public record as noting that, in the Belgian law, the second opinion need not agree with the euthanasia request. All that is needed is that the second opinion be noted. Dr van Hoey would have been protected in law if the medical records had noted a second opinion, regardless of the opinion itself. No concern at all about anything else.
That Belgium has eclipsed the Netherlands as having the most liberal interpretation of their euthanasia laws would make an interesting sociological study. The development of euthanasia ostensibly from a “last resort” for those who are dying and who have tried every option, to where it is now applied as an “early intervention” and, as described above, even for people who are not actually ill, invites the inevitable conclusion that euthanasia has moved from being available to a limited cohort in limited circumstances to being seen as a human right for all.
Belgian euthanasia supremo Dr Wim Distelmans, co-chair of Belgium’s Euthanasia Evaluation Commission, recently claimed this to be the case in response to the Catholic Archbishop of Brussels’ insistence that euthanasia may not be carried out in Catholic medical and aged-care facilities.
Dr Distelmans has claimed publicly that euthanasia in his country is a human right. It is Dr Distelmans’ commission that referred Dr van Hoey to the Department of Justice; yet his commission has turned a blind eye to the admission by his friend, Dr Marc Cosyns, that he has never once complied with the Belgian euthanasia reporting system in more than one hundred cases where he provided euthanasia. No value in safeguards if there are no reports.
There can be no “right” to be made dead; we will all die. However, when a society views euthanasia and assisted suicide as a “right”, there are inevitable consequences. If it is a “right”, on what grounds can we deny those who fall outside the initial framework (for example, having a terminal illness or less than six months to live) their “right” to be made dead? Human rights, by their very nature, are universal.
Even if you or I were to baulk at the thought of extending the law, its application, or both, there would be no logical reason to hold ground. In fact, to do so could be claimed as being discriminatory.
And so, when we are told that a euthanasia and/or assisted-suicide bill has “robust safeguards”, we may at first believe that the above expressed concerns will be taken care of. Think again. Though the mover and the supporters of such a bill may well believe that the putative law will be secure, it can never be the case. This invites the conclusion that the principal intended effect of these “safeguards” is more about trying to assuage our concerns and those of our parliamentarians, so as to see the bill pass.
It is a fair thing that those pushing for change will “advertise” the benefits of their product, but, under scrutiny, they fail.
The protective fence needs to remain. Public safety demands that it be honoured. Perhaps, when we can put this issue aside, we can all refocus our attention on expressing compassion towards those in need, through better care.
Paul Russell is executive director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide (NoEuthanasia.org.au), and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International.