The essential question of euthanasia is this: how far should the rights of individual citizens to determine their own fate extend and should it be to such an extent that the state becomes involved in the killing of its citizens? I say no. In fact, I say that it is a very dangerous thing for us, as members of parliament and as a community, to cross the line that protects us all.
The only remaining area in which South Australia sanctions the taking of a life of its own citizens is in the case of police when their own lives or the lives of other citizens are under threat. Even then, the situation is investigated as a matter of course and police are under the threat of prosecution where they are found to have acted outside the laws and procedures under which they operate.
Long gone are the days when the “divine right of kings” allowed the state in the form of the monarch to take any action they deemed justified, including the killing of citizens for any reason they saw fit. The restrictions on the state’s ability to kill its own citizens have increased to the point where we no longer allow the state to kill even the most hardened criminals guilty of the worst crimes. These restrictions are an important protections for citizens and for that reason I also oppose the death penalty.
Euthanasia is different in many ways, of course. In the form envisaged by the proponents of the two bills before the parliament, euthanasia involves a request by an individual to be killed by a doctor or perhaps by another health professional rather than the state imposing its will, but in some ways it is similar.
As with execution, the state, in the case of euthanasia through its doctors and other health professionals, is involved in the decision-making process and gives final approval. The state provides the equipment and the lethal drugs, the environment in which it occurs and the health professional who eventually kills the person in question.
I do not agree that the state should be involved in the killing of its citizens – even at their own request.
I do not hold this position because I have no sympathy for those in the painful or distressing final stages of a terminal illness. No one wants to see them suffering, least of all me. But the suffering of individuals is not the only issue that must be considered before we agree to involve the state in the killing of its citizens.
One of those issues that must be considered is the possible further expansion of the laws to allow more and more people to access euthanasia. The experience of those jurisdictions that have had voluntary euthanasia for some time is that the laws have been expanded. For example, when the laws were introduced in Belgium, they specifically excluded children; earlier this year, the first child was killed under recently amended laws.
In Holland it is now permissible to kill children who are born with disabilities with the agreement of their parents and doctors. They even have a decision-making matrix to help them decide which babies can be killed and which cannot. It didn’t start out that way. Again, when the laws were introduced, children were specifically excluded. Yet that has changed.
In a recent presentation to Members of Parliament by some disability advocates, many were concerned with a possible expansion of the laws at some later stage to include disability. They talked of ableism and the difficulties faced with just living. They explained the attitudes of able people to people with disabilities and asked for a system that supported them to live full lives rather than leave them in a situation where they might get so depressed at the difficulties facing them that they would seek to end their life. You can see the videos here.
The first of the two bills before parliament (Steph Key’s bill) shows that there are people in parliament who are prepared to contemplate the expansion of the reasons for access to euthanasia. Of course that is their right but if anyone thinks that just because the second bill (Duncan McFetridge’s bill) has been amended to exclude disability that there won’t be a push to expand the access, then they are sadly mistaken.
These bills take our society across a line from which we have been retreating for hundreds of years. Once we as a Parliament and a society agree that is okay for the state to be involved in the killing of its citizens, it becomes possible for us to end up in some very dark places. It will change society’s attitude to death, to the role of doctors and nurses in our healthcare system, to the treatment of pain and to the resolution of chronic and debilitating illnesses in our society.
There are already legal safeguards for doctors in the treatment of suffering by individuals. If the intention of the doctor is to relieve pain then they may administer as much pain killer as needed, even if they know that the dose will be fatal. This may seem to be a semantic point, but intention is actually important here. It’s the current law and it came about as the result of the work of a parliamentary committee and two years’ work.
Recent advance care directive legislation allows people to contemplate what care they might like to receive in advance. They may choose, for instance, to instruct that they not be resuscitated in the event that their heart stops beating. Again, it’s current law and it allows members of the public far greater control over their treatment as they near the end of their lives.
Palliative care is already very good and very few people in our health care system actually suffer from untreatable pain or discomfort – but it can be improved, further reducing pain and suffering in the final stages of life.
Tom Kenyon is a Labor MP who represents the seat of Newland.
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