For a society that values life and the right to life so greatly that our personal instincts and our laws are structured around the protection of life, we seem to be overly sympathetic to the idea of euthanasia — that if someone is truly suffering they should be given the opportunity to allow a medical practitioner to end their life. But what is the threshold to receive this “right”?
Some would argue that euthanasia should only be legal or available where the patient is suffering from a terminal illness. But this is not always the case.
Controversial campaigning doctor Philip Nitschke was criticised for his views as he advocated for the “right” to assisted suicide by individuals who were not physically ill.
There is something unsettling about the idea of a human being strapped to a computer that can inject a lethal syringe after the person types the words “go ahead”, without any counselling or consultancy.
How can we value life and yet as a society agree that it can be taken away based on an individual’s will? What we are left with is a battle of the rights — the will to die versus the right to life.
Which will prevail will depend on what is valued.
Do we value life, or our sense of autonomy, and not needing to be accountable to anyone else other than the self?
In Belgium last year, an 85-year-old woman was approved for assisted suicide because she was so distressed after learning about her daughter’s death.
She was physically healthy, and on hearing this we find ourselves asking whether she would have pursued assisted suicide once a few months had passed and the initial shock had worn off.
Unfortunately, we will never know.
More than 8000 people have been euthanised in Belgium, where assisted suicide has been legal for 13 years.
There, patients don’t have to be terminally ill, just found by a medical doctor to be suffering “incurable, unbearable pain”.
Is this the route we want Australia to pursue? It may begin that it is available only for terminally ill patients, but history and the rest of the world tell us that it’s only a matter of time before the scope is widened.
So what is that threshold then? Could severe depression suffice?
Our moral instinct tells us that it shouldn’t.
We live in a society where so many organisations are actively seeking to reduce suicide and improve mental health, and yet others are campaigning for the right to take their own life.
For an individual with a terminal illness, a sympathetic view is commonly shared that the person will die anyway, and what euthanasia does is alleviate the pain and suffering of that individual by simply “speeding” up the process.
But one needs to consider, what type of society we are creating for ourselves when we allow doctors — whose purpose is to protect and save life — to now be able to take it away.
No one should be left to die in pain, and perhaps what “dying with dignity” really looks like is having the best palliative care and pain treatments available, rather than ending a life.
We should be lobbying our governments to invest in better health care, and the newest technology available for terminally ill patients, rather than for the right of medically trained professionals to take away the life of another.
This article by ACL WA Director Dahlia Messiha was originally published in The West Australian on 26 August 2016.