Responding to Mr Denton

We hear a lot these days about bias in the media. I find it confusing sometimes that what seems to be claimed as evidence of such bias is really little more than the journalist expressing an opinion or following an editorial line. 

In terms of euthanasia The Melbourne Age newspaper, for example, has editorialised its support a number of times. It makes no secret of that. When dealing with their senior journalists as I have from time to time, I remain aware of their position but, nevertheless, confident that, even so, they will represent what I say accurately. I have never had cause to complain.

There are clearly some journalists whose names, over the years, have become synonymous with ideals like, honesty, integrity etc., whose status - regardless of their opinions - evokes the highest aspirations of the journalistic classes.

It was with such an ideal in mind that I happily accepted a last minute request from Andrew Denton to attend the anti-euthanasia symposium I chaired in Adelaide in May this year. When we finally met at the venue, Denton was upfront about his inclination to support assisted suicide but promised us a 'fair hearing' in what he explained would be a series of podcast programs.

We called the event: "Standing Strong, Together" because we wanted to help educate and unify people who oppose euthanasia. It was less about the 'why' than it was about the 'how'; more about what can be achieved in working together than about the arguments against euthanasia and assisted suicide per se. After all, this was an event for those that oppose euthanasia, so some assumptions could be made about attendee's level of understanding. Still, I thought, Denton would get some grasp of our reasoning through the breadth and diversity of our speaking roster. Some of my international colleagues whom Denton interviewed at the symposium said to me at the time that they thought he was campaigning hard for euthanasia. Given my then opinion of his work, I dismissed these comments. After all, they did not know who Denton was and their judgement was therefore, lacking the full picture - or so I thought.

As we now know, Denton took himself off to places like Belgium, Holland and Oregon after the conference to further his research. On his return we met for a further interview. His questions were at times difficult and searching, as one might expect. I did not expect that Denton had changed his mind but I was surprised that he seemed to be taking an aggressively pro stance that was dismissive of the opposing view. I recall thinking about that Monty Python line: 'I didn't expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition!' Denton's barb: 'So, how does it feel to be on the wrong side of history?' seems more pointed now than it did at the time.

There is a vast difference between a journalist with an opinion and an out-and-out activist. At some point Denton appears to have moved towards the latter. He has returned to the airwaves on this matter seemingly having something of an epiphany and assuming a role more like a prosecutor than a Julius Sumner Miller.

On radio last week, after reducing our arguments to absurd over-simplifications, Denton says that those who 'continue to play this card' about abuse of the elderly and the disabled, 'are doing so for very cynical political reasons'. Elsewhere he calls them 'lies'. In his recent oration at The Wheeler Centre he said: "It was hard to avoid the conclusion that using the disabled and the elderly as the spearhead of a campaign against assisted dying is politics at its most brutal."

In more than five years of engaging on this issue I have never seen such invective thrown across the divide. Most 'on the other side', in my experience prefer to make their case, as we do, in the hope that what they present makes sense. Obviously there are points of difference and sometimes that involves some level of 'sparring', but never anything like this. It is as though Denton has had a 'Lincoln Steffens' moment ("I have seen the future, and it works") and this 'revelation' somehow demands a civility and convention bypass. It is as though no-one else has ever been to the Low Countries or Oregon.

I have a number of issues with Denton's rhetoric. Let's look first at the abuse of the 'disabled and the elderly' as he puts it. Firstly, the law has a great deal to do with what we call 'vulnerable people'. Framed in various ways, concern for vulnerable people has been a headline concern of inquiries on euthanasia going back to 1994 and the New York Taskforce. Repeated in different ways at successive inquiries in the UK as well as here in Australia, there is a very clear resonance here with the criminal code - we have laws to protect people.

At the symposium, in a section mainly to do with ethics, Rev. Dr. John Fleming observed that: Where the inalienability of the right to life is no longer protected in law, then the general protection of the right to life of citizens is fatally compromised. Thus do governments fail the first test of government - to protect impartially the right to life of all citizens no matter how frail, damaged, or otherwise compromised such lives may be.

So, this principle of protection of vulnerable people is deeply imbedded in our society. It remains so whether or not abuse ever occurs. To dismiss it, as Denton appears to do, is dangerous. To suggest that the anti-euthanasia and anti-assisted suicide movement uses (as in: abuses) the elderly and people with disabilities as spearheads is as wrong as it is offensive. It is wrong because vulnerability and the law, as demonstrated, are related and that the elderly, as a subset or partial subset, of 'vulnerable persons' are in fact, often the subject of abuse and coercion.

The same can be said for people living with disabilities. They speak well enough for themselves. The suggestion that they have been somehow dragooned into lock-step with the anti-euthanasia movement is plain wrong as anyone with so much as a casual relationship with a person involved in disability advocacy will know full well. And here's the rub Mr Denton: it is the lived experience of people living with disability in this country that makes them weary of euthanasia. It's much more than just theory. It's not really about disabled persons in Belgium or The Netherlands (one would need to take a sociologists eye to those nations over an extended period to determine any similarities or differences). It is about here and now. The casual dismissal of real and personal concerns borders on the juvenile.

Much of the concern about vulnerable people is based on an understanding of human nature and anecdotes rather than nice clean data sets. There are plenty of anecdotes that suggest abuse of persons, or the system and both. Contrary to Canadian Justice Smith and Denton, the law does not protect hypothetical persons in hypothetical situations - it protects every person equally - real people protected from the possibility of real harm.

Denton also mistakenly equates the 'slippery slope' (a term I don't use) with evidence of a sinister motive:

"I found nothing 'slippery' or underhanded about what they were doing. The systems in Belgium and the Netherlands are based on full and transparent disclosure; where every case is reported and reviewed by peer committees, aligned with the coroner's office, and with the power to report doctors to state prosecutors for any breaches."

Not every case is reported and few cases reach the state prosecutors. But the idea of a 'slippery slope' is not so much associated with some sinister intent as it is with a form of inevitable incrementalism; the understanding that, overtime, the parameters change either by way of a change to the law, by a gradual fudging at the edges of the criteria or by ignorance. All are observable in the Belgian practice over the past decade and more. You cannot change reality by changing the definition.

Nor can we simply airbrush out the difficult and defining cases. Denton seemed to be doing just that with the case of Tom Mortier and the well-documented death of his mother. Yes, it was sad, but it is also defining because it is very similar to the death of Simona De Moor featured a few weeks ago in an SBS documentary and now the subject of a judicial referral in Belgium -the very first in more than 8000 euthanasia deaths over more than a decade. It cannot be said that every other avenue had been explored in either case. Both women died by euthanasia when a family reconciliation would surely have been a less drastic solution to grief and depression.

Overall, if you look at Denton's characterisation of the anti-euthanasia argument and its proponents you get the distinct impression that they (we) are irrational scaremongers with nothing practical to add to the debate. I reject that assessment totally, both personally and on behalf of the many thousands of academics, medicos, lawyers, other professionals and concerned citizens across the globe whose articulate position Denton is either ignoring or dismissing. You can't have an argument if there's only one side, Mr Denton.

See also:
Surely you're joking Mr Denton