Today is Sanctity of Life Sunday in Brisbane archdiocese. Queensland Bioethics Centre director RAY CAMPBELL writes on euthanasia as he reflects on the theme of the day
IT is a shame that so much time, money and energy is being wasted to promote euthanasia, when what we really need are people agitating for better care for the terminally ill, aged, and those with disability.
As a member of the Greens in NSW indicates her intention to introduce a Bill to allow Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS), St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney has announced that it has to cut its intake of in-patient palliative care beds due to lack of funding.
A spokesperson for Palliative Care Queensland recently told me that there has been no increase in funding for palliative care in Queensland for 10 years.
We now have the ability to offer terminally ill people care in their homes, care in hospital beds, and care in hospices. All three are needed, all three can offer people the care they require when they are dying, but all three are hopelessly underfunded.
A similar problem exists with aged care, where high-care beds are underfunded by the government. Many involved with aged care claim that the funding arrangements have to change, or our aged care could simply collapse.
These are the real issues we should be discussing, not measures which simply seek to kill off the patient.
That is why the focus for this year’s Sanctity of Life Sunday in Brisbane archdiocese is care for the terminally ill, the elderly, the frail, those with disability, the vulnerable.
It is not simply a matter of saying “no” to euthanasia (and assisted suicide), but saying yes to proper care for those in need. We need to have a good look at where we are spending our health-care dollar.
One commentator refers to those promoting assisted suicide as “a strident consumerist elite … playing on fears of death and dying”. (Cristina Odone, England)
There is a push for euthanasia going on in just about every state of Australia, although there is no bill proposed for the Queensland Parliament. Federally, the Greens are introducing a bill to overturn the legislation which prevents the Northern Territory and the ACT from legalising euthanasia.
There is some confusion over terminology in the euthanasia debate. Euthanasia involves an act or omission with the intention of hastening a person’s death in order to relieve their suffering. It involves a lethal act (or omission) by someone other than the patient/victim.
Assisted suicide refers to giving someone the means (for example, a drug) whereby the person may kill themselves. The “assistance” might even go as far as putting the drug into a drip which the patient then turns on.
Both are wrong, and the legalisation of either undermines the good of life and society.
Neither are the same as discontinuing overly burdensome treatment nor the administering of appropriate drugs to relieve and prevent pain – both of which are morally acceptable and part of good palliative care.
Even some people who are normally pro-life might accept the argument that if someone wants to kill themselves they should be free to do so, and given assistance if needed. It does not really affect other people.
But this argument is superficial. Legalising euthanasia (including assisted suicide) affects everyone. It necessarily undermines the protection of the life of the most vulnerable.
A Select Committee of the House of Lords in England considered the legalisation of euthanasia. Although the majority of the members had been in favour of euthanasia, after investigating the matter the committee concluded that permitting euthanasia would undermine the protection of all, and that in the interest of society as a whole, euthanasia should remain illegal.
Some claim that assisted suicide might avoid the pitfalls of legalising euthanasia. But it cannot.
If assisted suicide is legal the vulnerable will be made to feel as if they should avail themselves of it.
Furthermore, if they do not avail themselves of it, it will be easy for others, who have judged that their lives are not worth living, to do it for them under the guise of assisted suicide.
If the law says there are lives that can be legally disposed of, the temptation will be for relatives, hard pressed public hospitals and cash-strapped institutions to see the elderly and the frail as a burden to be shed, not people to be cared for.
The legalising of euthanasia undermines the patient-doctor relationship and the patient’s trust in health-care institutions.
A doctor from the Netherlands reported how people were travelling to Germany for hospital treatment because they were afraid to go to hospital in the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands euthanasia has moved from “voluntary” to “non-voluntary” (that is, the patient did not request it) and probably involuntary.
Amongst the groups advocating against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide have been advocacy groups for those with disability.
People with disability already experience all kinds of discrimination in our society.
An story in the journal Disability and Health Journal commented: “The deadly impact of legalising assisted suicide would fall hardest, whether directly or indirectly, on socially and economically disadvantaged people who have less access to medical resources and who already find themselves discriminated against by the health-care system.”
Once again the House of Lords Committee put it well: “the message which society sends to vulnerable and disadvantaged people should not, however obliquely, encourage them to seek death, but should assure them of our care and support in life”.
Of course it is not just the effect that legalising euthanasia has on all people that makes it morally wrong.
Even voluntary, “self-administered” euthanasia is an act against proper love of self, of neighbour and of God.
So we return to the theme of this year’s Sanctity of Life Sunday.
Let us not simply speak out against euthanasia, which is the ultimate abandonment of another. Let us also speak out for better access to good palliative care and services for all those in need.
The real question is not whether the lives of the suffering and terminally ill are worthwhile, but but whether we are the kind of persons who will care for them without doubting their worth?