Some of the discourse on assisted suicide and euthanasia can make the question seem complicated. In essence the proposition is quite simple: should our society allow doctors to support a person’s wish to suicide or not?
Yes, there are overlays about suffering that evoke the very best in each of us to want to be compassionate, knowing that we, too, would want the very best of care at the end of life and to receive the best pain and symptom management possible. But there are other less dramatic ways of achieving that outcome. And, for most, the issue really isn’t about pain; it’s about fear. Do we give in to fears or learn to deal with them? Do we abandon people to such fears or do we help them to work through them?
These are the big questions. Can we justify creating exceptions to the laws that are meant to protect all of us equally when the same cris de coeur are also speaking to us about building a health system that provides the public with confidence in their care and assurance that their needs will be met?
Do we make public policy for the common good or do we make fundamental changes to our laws on homicide for the few?
These kinds of questions know no conventional political divide. Euthanasia and assisted suicide voting records really don’t line up with any other issue.
The NSW Shadow Minister for Health, the Hon Walt Secord provided a good example in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald recently. Secord identifies as a ‘progressive’ legislator yet finds himself opposed to the upcoming assisted suicide legislation soon to be introduced into his chamber.
“…I believe parliamentarians cannot codify legislation on how to end a human life.
“It is not possible to put in place sufficient safeguards and protections to prevent abuses of these laws.
“And this is before we consider the invidious pressures of medical costs, financial burdens on families or the prospect of manipulation in regard to inheritances.
“So, my concerns come from a legislative and practical perspective; not a religious one.”
“It is through minimising pain that we can properly, and ethically, help the elderly or those struck down with terminal illness to have dignity.”
Secord’s observations are open to consideration by anyone – regardless of political or religious persuasion. They were amplified on News.com.au by similar comments from the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian:
“The premier on Monday said she did not support the bill.
"Traditionally I'm someone who's quite progressive on social issues, but that's a difficult one for me," she told reporters in Sydney.
"I don't think I can support it."
And yet the debate is largely characterised by the pro-euthanasia camp and some sections of the media as being opposed largely (if not exclusively) by religious, conservative types. This is clearly a misrepresentation that seeks to dismiss rational opposition.
UK Actress, comedienne and disability rights advocate, Liz Carr put this false divide to bed when she spoke to Victorian Parliamentarians in March this year. Liz is, likewise, politically and socially progressive:
“Opposition to these bills is usually marginalised as being religious and that’s very useful to do if you don’t want to listen to it, but actually if we want to introduce a bill like this, we have to listen to all sides of course, and we have to not diminish their view.”
The opposition to this legislation from the disability community is almost exclusively from people with no religious affiliation at all who would not normally associate with the poorly caricatured ‘religious right’.
Canadian born UK Academic, Kevin Yuill also railed against this false caricature:
“I’m not the only atheist in the “No” camp. Prominent British actress and comedienne Liz Carr has recently returned from your fair country and, lo, she, too, is an atheist. So was the late great Stella Young. We exist!
“The reason we have been ignored is that it is much easier to write off opinion as religious than confront it. Then you avoid the difficult questions like, if assisted dying is deemed medical treatment, how can it be denied to anyone who suffers?”
“Or, what will sanctioning suicide for some do to efforts to combat suicide generally? Or, won’t defining dignity as the ability to go to the toilet unaided demean and devalue the existence of many disabled people who lead enjoyable, fulfilled lives, thank you very much, despite not having that ability?”
Yuill’s questions have a deep resonance. They draw us to the deepest of issues about how we behave as a society and how we value humanity – all of humanity. They are beyond any possible pigeon-holing; they ask us to look beyond the slogans and the marketing and to delve into what this is really all about.
This is why comments like those of Walt Secord’s and Premier Berejiklian need to be considered. It is not uncommon to hear MPs who have delved into the issue, respond that they might like the idea of assisted suicide on compassionate grounds, but understanding the risks, also realise that we should never legislate.
As Toby Hall told The Age last week:
“Proponents of assisted suicide are constantly urging Victoria's politicians to show courage by supporting its introduction.
“But if assisted suicide is legalised in Victoria does anyone really think that the fear and anxiety around death will disappear?
“Far more courageous is the MP who looks past the superficial appeal of assisted suicide and recognises that nothing in life – or death – is ever that straightforward and simple.”