|Uniya - Jesuit Social Justice Centre||CONTENTS||Spring 1995|
The recent Northern Territory legislation effectively legalises active voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. At a recent meeting, the leaders of Australia's Catholic religious congregations expressed concern lest this initiative set a precedent for other Australian States or the international community. Many congregational leaders voicing their concern carry responsibility for acute care hospitals and nursing homes.
To be assisted by one's relatives and friends in the final stages of a terminal illness is neither degrading or humiliating... It can enhance the dignity of both patient and carer.
|It is of interest that in the Northern Territory, palliative care and hospice services are virtually unavailable. Only an occasional visiting oncologist is provided. The private member who initiated the bill was for eight years Chief Minister. It seems he did little to provide palliative care or hospice services for the Territory. The new legislation was approved after only three months' investigation. No house of review was available, since the Territory has only one house. Members of the Aboriginal Community expressed dismay at the legislation. The new law does not have the support of the Australian Medical Association. The legislation contradicts the recommendations of a prolonged and expert Victorian survey. The bipartisan Parliamentary Social Development Committee concluded that "it is neither desirable nor practicable for any legislative action to be taken establishing a right to die".|
The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics responded in 1994 to arguments for legalised active voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide:
Ultimately, however, we do not believe that these arguments are sufficient reason to weaken society's prohibition of intentional killing. That prohibition is the cornerstone of law and of social relationships. It protects each one of us impartially, embodying the belief that all are equal. We do not wish that protection to be diminished and we therefore recommend that there should be no change in the law to permit euthanasia. We acknowledge that there are individual cases in which euthanasia may be seen by some to be appropriate. But individual cases cannot reasonably establish the foundation of a policy which would have such serious and widespread repercussions. Moreover dying is not only a personal or individual affair. The death of a person affects the lives of others, often in ways and to an extent which cannot be foreseen. We believe that the issue of euthanasia is one in which the interest of the individual cannot be separated from the interest of society as a whole. (Paragraph 237)
The Dutch experience, as shown in the 1991 Remmelink Report, should give
us pause. Reported are 2300 cases of admitted active voluntary
euthanasia and 400 cases of assisted suicide, amounting to more than 2
per cent of Holland's annual deaths. A further 1000 cases of life-
terminating acts were undertaken without the patient's explicit request.
It is estimated that voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia
accounted for more than 1-in-8 deaths in Holland in 1990. It is
disturbing that reported cases of euthanasia or assisted suicide have
increased following the publication of the Remmelink Report.
Equally disturbing is the support shown recently in Australia by some advocating a move from voluntary to non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Currently in Australia there is an alarming rate of youth suicide. Regrettably a sizeable proportion of the population still supports capital punishment. Further many poor, handicapped, aged and otherwise marginalised people have limited access to health care and especially palliative care.
Relief from pain and suffering has never been as effective as now. Even when lives have been artificially and futilely prolonged by unnecessary technological medical intervention, and voluntary euthanasia may appear a compelling option, appropriately monitored palliative care can still be effective.
Dying with dignity should never be equated with autonomous control of purely physical functions. To be assisted by one's relatives and friends in the final stages of a terminal illness is neither degrading or humiliating. To die naturally in this way can enhance the dignity of both patient and carer more than the artificially engineered surcease of an intentionally lethal overdose. This sentiment is not only Christian but an index of our common humanity.
Those who hold that every human life has a dignity, destiny and sacredness, sometimes speak about 'a consistent ethic of life'. They challenge the 'culture of death' which allows war and the arms trade, other violence and terrorism, state sanctioned cruelty (including torture and capital punishment), and which sees suicide, abortion and euthanasia as ways of resolving issues. Many of us avoid facing life's choices by turning away from the human experience of poverty, hunger and disease (including HIV), and through the consumption of drugs.
More than ever we need to encourage 'a culture of life' which puts forward a future full of hope for our youth. This requires policies which divert resources from the international traffic in arms, and challenge economic social development models which harm the poor. It requires policies which create opportunities for meaningful commitment rather than anomie and dispair, policies which promote realistic and morally appropriate alternatives to interventions which cause death for whatever reason and at whatever point that life exists. And it requires policies which develop carefully an ethical context for medical experimentation and genetic engineering.
Because these issues are so important and complex, ours is a ministry of reconciliation. Rational arguments should occur in the middle ground rather than by polarising opinion into the extremes.
Above material is from the Uniya Newsletter: used with permission.
The Cardoner, © Copyright 1995 by Jack Otto.