Legislators must hear the voice of the voiceless in the Euthanasia debate.

Those who support legalising euthanasia argue for personal choice and autonomy. Legislators, however, make decisions based on what is good for the whole community – herein lies a problem.

If it were possible to romanticise death I would envisage it as a large loving family gathered around the bed of a dearly-loved well-advanced-in-years great grandma or pa. With final hugs given and loving words spoken this cherished soul passes gently into the next life. 

Some have been fortunate enough to experience this scenario. 

Those in support of euthanasia compassionately want many more to experience this – but they promote human intervention (through the use of an injected or ingested lethal dose) to determine the timing. 

No one wants to see loved ones experience unnecessary suffering.

But families are rarely perfect. At times there is inconvenience, bitterness, hidden agendas and unseen pressures on the dying to relieve the family of unnecessary burdens and worry.

Doesn’t happen? Think again.

Elder abuse is a very real problem affecting an estimated 3000-4500 Tasmanians at any one time. There is likely significant under-reporting – after all, who would want to dob-in their own family or friends?

On average the Tasmanian Elder Abuse Hotline receives 20 calls a month. About half of the callers are advised to contact the police because of the serious nature of their abuse. About half all abuse, which includes emotional, physical, financial, social, sexual and neglect, is perpetuated by family members.

If family members can stoop so low as to abuse their weak and vulnerable ‘loved ones’ then it doesn’t take much imagination to see how euthanasia laws could be exploited in a way that would be undetectable – even with all the supposed ‘safeguards’.

What might appear voluntary could in fact be quite the opposite.

This potential is at the heart of the euthanasia debate. It is why time and again Australian state governments have chosen not to cross this sacred line. Human autonomy should never outweigh social responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

One of the most thorough cross-party inquiries conducted on the issue occurred in Tasmania back in 1998. 

Four of the five committee members began the inquiry supportive of euthanasia. After hearing the evidence and arguments for and against, five out of five were opposed. 

Their conclusions are timeless and inescapable. 

A key one was: “…whilst individual cases may present a strong case for reform the obligation of the state to protect the right to life of all individuals equally could not be delivered by legislation that is based on subjective principles.”

We now also know from overseas jurisdictions that have legalised euthanasia – subjective principles (aka safeguards) don’t hold firm for long. 

An ever-expanding circle of eligibility for euthanasia has occurred in places like Belgium and Holland, which now includes those with disabilities, mental health issues, addictions and those simply tired of living. 

A 2015 Belgium report showed nearly half of euthanasia deaths in the Flanders region were not reported even though the law requires it. In the same region in 2013 it is estimated that over 1000 people had their deaths hastened without their request. 

Exercising one’s ‘right to die’ can also put unfair burdens on doctors (around half of whom, in one Dutch survey, felt pressured by their patients or relatives to endorse euthanasia).

Public opinion and personal experiences are important. Yet for those tasked with enacting laws for the common good, the euthanasia door should remain firmly shut.

As the then Attorney-General Brian Wightman articulated in the 2013 Tasmanian debate: “It is my considered view that there is not a politician who could come into this House and say that the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2013 protects all vulnerable people in all situations.” 

I believe this is true of any bill on this issue, there is no safe euthanasia.

Rejecting euthanasia takes principled fortitude from politicians especially when the stories of suffering and pain are very real and at times personal. The challenge for them is to ensure they also listen carefully for the voices of the voiceless, those whose interests they also represent but from whom they will most likely never hear.


This article by ACL Tasmanian Director Mark Brown was originally published in The Examiner on April 20, 2017