By Dr Ray Campbell
THE Australian Catholic Bishops Conference has published a pamphlet on euthanasia, which is being distributed throughout all the parishes of Brisbane.
It is also available on-line at the website of the bishops’ conference.
The pamphlet is entitled “Real care, love and compassion – the alternative to euthanasia”.
Part of the motivation behind the pamphlet is that surveys have shown that many Catholics are confused about the issue of euthanasia.
The pamphlet is intended to help educate Catholics but also help them to respond to some of the common arguments put forward in favour of euthanasia.
The pamphlet addresses these arguments under the headings of six “myths”.
In this column I will expand slightly on some of those myths.
One of the most popular arguments put forward is the so-called autonomy argument, that is, that everyone should be free to decide when to end their own life. (Myth 3 in the pamphlet: “Euthanasia is an issue of personal liberty and personal choice”.)
This “argument” is both simplistic and naïve. Since when did we let people do things simply because “it was their choice”?
We never allow this kind of freedom to our children, and for good reason.
We want our children to learn to use their freedom to make good choices, choices which are directed towards their good and the good of others.
Even as adults, we find our choices are curtailed in various ways, once again, for our own good and the good of others, like wearing seat belts in cars.
Suicide is generally regarded as tragic, and we actually put up barriers in some places to discourage people from committing suicide.
Freedom of choice (autonomy) is about freedom for doing good, not freedom to do whatever one likes.
So the autonomy argument cannot stand on its own.
When you scratch below the surface you discover that there is something else behind the autonomy argument.
It is the concept that there is such a thing as “a life not worth living”.
But what are the criteria for arriving at such a conclusion?
If there is such a state, there is no reason why it should be restricted to those who are able to express that judgment about their own lives.
Others should be able to make a similar judgment about those unable to express such a judgment, as has happened in places like Belgium where young children can be euthanised.
Hence, the “autonomy” argument is really camouflage for this dubious ethical position.
The autonomy argument is also very naïve regarding how free people might be when they request to be put to death.
The vulnerable are open to being made to feel as if this is what they should do. In a recent letter published in the Times, leading members of the British Medical Association commenting on proposed assisted-suicide legislation said that one of the reasons most doctors were opposed to legalisation of assisted suicide was that “doctors are aware of the potential for abuse of vulnerable patients and the illusory nature of the ‘safeguards’ in any proposed legislation”.
(Myth 1: Euthanasia can be legislated for safely, and Myth 4: It’s worked well in other places, like The Netherlands, Belgium and Oregon in the United States.)
Others can make the request for euthanasia under the misapprehension that nothing more can be done to ease their situation.
Those working in palliative care have found that once they addressed the problem leading to the making of the request for euthanasia, the request is withdrawn.
This happens because someone cared. (Myth 6: Euthanasia is necessary to relieve pain.)
Another common argument is the appeal to compassion.
But what kind of compassion is it which wants to end the life of the one who suffers, rather than seek to alleviate the suffering?
As Bishop Peter Comensoli expressed it, “a genuinely compassionate response will always look to dignifying the life of the person dying”.
This is where the availability of good palliative care is so important.
As the pamphlet expresses it, “good, well-resourced palliative care gives people the ability not only to live well in their illness, but to die well too”. (Myth 2: Dying with dignity.)
The Times editorial commenting on the proposed assisted-suicide legislation in England, stated that the debate had downplayed the enormous advances in palliative care in recent years.
Rather than agitating for dehumanising euthanasia we should be agitating for greater availability of quality palliative care.
Much is often made of the polls showing support for euthanasia. But these polls are notoriously easy to manipulate by the way one poses the question. It is also true that many of those responding to the polls are not well informed about the reality of end-of-life care today. (Myth 5: Euthanasia should be legalised because opinion polls support it.)
But more than that, perhaps we should be asking why are so many people in favour of deliberately ending someone’s life, even their own?
Is it that life itself has lost meaning?
Do not we, as believers in Jesus Christ, who lived, suffered, died, and rose again, have something to offer our society about the meaning of life, something more than the life-denying killing of another?
Dr Ray Campbell is the director of the Queensland Bioethics Centre.