In a complex issue like euthanasia, in which life and death literally hangs in the balance, it is important that the terms and definitions of the discussion are crystal clear. Therefore, having noticed confusion in student and public discussion around this issue, I want to clear up some simple, popular myths about euthanasia which distorts a lot of the debate on this extremely important issue.
Euthanasia is NOT ending overly burdensome life support for someone who’s going to die. That’s already legal. Rather, euthanasia is the deliberate act of killing a person by lethal injection or something similar. The person who’s being killed, and who is innocent I might add, is nearly always elderly and vulnerable. They are often not in a position to make a decision with full consent and full knowledge. Mental impairment of some sort often gets in the way. And safeguards are impossible to put in place and abuses are manifold. Euthanasia is, by all counts, the cheap, loveless way out.
Unfortunately there are a lot of confused people out there and none more so than member-elect of the University of Sydney union board, Tom Raue who erroneously believes euthanasia should be made legal because ‘people are unable to do this themselves so have a doctor either take them off life support, cease feeding them…’ Mr. Raue is a very bright person and I don’t doubt his good intentions but for someone like him to make a grave mistake like this regarding something as important as ending a human person’s life makes me doubt whether the rest of the community actually knows what euthanasia is.
Even the Minister of Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, got it wrong when he said on ABC’s Q&A program last Monday, ‘There’s a real sense of unease out in the community that our capacity to control the circumstances of our death has become subordinated to this extraordinary technical capacity to keep people alive by plugging them into a machine that goes “Bing”.’ Again, turning off a terminally ill person’s life support machine if it becomes overly burdensome for him or her is already legal. If the Minister who’s supposed to be an expert on this prevalent issue is getting it wrong then what hope does the rest of the community have?
As Magaret Somerville, a Canadian lawyer and ethicist, has written on this issue
We need to distinguish treatment that is necessary to relieve pain, even if it could shorten life (which is a very rare occurrence if pain relief is competently prescribed), from the use of pain relief treatment as covert euthanasia. The former is not euthanasia, the latter is.
The distinction hinges on the physician’s primary intention in giving the treatment. Pain relief treatment given with a primary intention to relieve pain and reasonably necessary to achieve that outcome is not euthanasia, even if it does shorten the patient’s life. Any intervention, including the use of pain relief drugs, carried out with a primary intention of causing the patient’s death and resulting in that outcome, is euthanasia.
Acting with a primary intention to kill is a world apart from acting with a primary intention to relieve pain. And this is not a novel or exceptional approach. The law recognizes such distinctions daily. If we accidentally hit and kill a pedestrian with our car, it is not murder. If we deliberately run him down with our car intending to kill him, it is.
Before we even begin to contemplate something as highly risky, morally fraught and terribly loveless as euthanasia we have to ensure the current state of palliative care is world-class. We do live in Australia after all and our standard of healthcare ought to be world-class. Unfortunately this is not the case and this fact is exemplified by what the Minister of Mental Health and Ageing noted on ABC’s Q&A, ‘I don’t think that there are good systems of palliative care out in the community’
Surely this is a more productive use of government money and time, and more beneficial for our old people? And the best place to start is with a clear understanding of what euthanasia is, and what it is not.