Last week, ACL’s Chief of Staff Lyle Shelton participated in a debate about euthanasia with the founder of Exit International, Dr Phillip Nitschke. Read Lyle’s talk below.

The debate was organised by the University of New South Wales Debating Society and the topic was "That we should legalise voluntary euthanasia".

Format of the debate
Each team will have two speakers. Speakers are welcome to present arguments and rebut the arguments of the opposition. Speaking time will be 10 minutes per speech.

Dr. Sarah Edelman: Vice-President of Dying with Dignity NSW
Dr. Phillip Nitschke: Founder of EXIT International

Paul Russell: Chairman of HOPE / Right to Life NSW
Lyle Shelton: Chief of Staff at the Australian Christian Lobby

 Why euthanasia should not be legalised

UNSW Debating Society Thursday August 25, 2001

Earlier this year I was meeting with a Labor member of Parliament who was open to the idea of legalising euthanasia.

She said to me: “It is happening now and legalising euthanasia would just recognise what is already taking place.”

I asked her what it was that was already taking place.

She said doctors already routinely prescribed pain relief that hastens the death of their patients. She went on to say that in this circumstance it made no sense not to legalise euthanasia.

I said that we were in furious agreement about the ethics of relieving a suffering patient’s pain.

However, I said – much to her amazement – that euthanasia was a completely different proposition.

Presented with the evidence, she had nothing to cling to but ideology.

This anecdote underscores much of the confusion in the minds of the public about the debate surrounding euthanasia.

It is no wonder that surveys which ask: Do you believe people in terrible pain should have access to euthanasia? achieve high levels of support in the community.

Framing the issue like this makes euthanasia seem like the only compassionate and humane way to treat pain.

There is a lot of confusion in the language around euthanasia. Take for instance the phrase “dying with dignity”. It contains the latent assumption that it is not possible to die with dignity unless euthanasia is on the table.

While I am not a doctor I am advised that the need to prescribe the type of pain relief which hastens a patient’s death is rare if pain relief is competently prescribed.

In the small number of cases where pain cannot be controlled, palliative sedation is an option.

I do understand that there are rare cases when these options fail but then the question must be asked about whether hard cases make good law.

The active intervention of a doctor (or a group of lawyers as some euthanasia advocates suggest) with a lethal substance is entirely different to the compassionate act of relieving a patient’s pain, even if the onset of death is hastened.

Turning off a life support machine is not euthanasia. Nor is acceding to the wishes of a patient to refuse treatment.

This debate should not be framed as an arbitrary choice between euthanasia and pain relief.

I accept that not everyone holds the view that people are different from animals.

If I did not hold this view, I would not have a problem with euthanasia – despite the fact that there are other ways to treat pain and suffering.

However, the view of western civilisation in the inherent dignity of human life – admittedly based on a Christian view of humanity – has been under challenge in recent decades.

Some philosophers say there is no inherent difference between people and animals.

If this is one’s view, then there should be no obstacle to euthanasia.

But holding this view of human life means revising the understanding of the worth of human life from one of inherent dignity to one of extrinsic dignity.

This means that one’s dignity as a human depends on one’s circumstances. Is the person in pain? What useful purpose can the life now perform?

Now the majority of people identify as religious and even as Christian in what is supposed to be an age of the triumph of secularism.

But you don’t have to be a religious person to entertain the notion of the metaphysical.

If there is a non-physical dimension to human life – probably best summed up in our innate desire to know and understand the meaning of life – then human life must be defined by more than its mere utility.

If all there is is the physical, then there is no reason why human life should not also be treated according to our prevailing consumerist/materialist culture and discarded once it no longer has any use.

One of the biggest objections to euthanasia is constructing a law which prevents abuse and exploitation of the vulnerable.

Even our Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is conflicted about euthanasia, says it is probably not possible to design a law with adequate safeguards.

Some proponents, such as the Tasmanian Greens Leader Nick McKim assure the public that their draft bills contain rigorous safeguards.

Others, such as Doctor Philip Nitschke want less checks and balances and actually find these an impediment.

He told a Tasmanian Parliamentary Inquiry in 2009 he would not have a psychiatrist involved at all in assessing whether or not someone was in a sound frame of mind to request their life be ended.

This is despite the fact that depression is common in people facing the possibility of a terminal illness.

He told the same inquiry that one of his alleged breaches of the 1996 Rights of the Terminally Ill Act – ie the alleged failure to conduct adequate psychiatric consultation – was “a breach motivated by compassion”.

We now know that two of the four people who were euthanaised under the ROTI act were most likely not terminally ill at all. We also know that four of the seven people to die in association with the ROTI were suffering from depression.

The ROTI had checks and balances built in by the lawmakers to ensure people were not pressured because of their frame of mind.

Dr Nitschke’s testimony to the 2009 Tasmanian Parliamentary inquiry is a plea to remove impediments from him to euthanase people and yet lawmakers such as McKim know they can’t win public support without demonstrating that they will put in place rigorous checks and balances to ensure people are not wrongly killed.

Euthanasia advocates can’t have it both ways.

The Dutch have the greatest experience with euthanasia. The original criteria 30 years ago in Holland stipulated all manner of safeguards or impediments, if you like.

It was limited to:

  • Competent adults who were terminally ill and had pain and suffering that could not be relieved and who repeatedly asked for euthanasia.

Today, none of these apply.

  • The Groningen protocol allows parents of disabled babies to request euthanasia.

  • Children aged 12-16 can request it with their parents’ consent. No parental consent is needed after 16.

  • There are more than 500 deaths a year from euthanasia where the adult was not competent or whose consent was not obtained. It is clear that something other than voluntary euthanasia is practiced in Holland.

In Switzerland, where a model of assisted suicide favoured by Dr Nitschke exists, between 2001 and 2004 the Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas assisted 274 people to die. Of these 58, or 21 per cent, were experiencing non-fatal illnesses.

Questions must be asked about the real agenda of some euthanasia advocates and whether it goes beyond what most Australians envisage if euthanasia were to be legalised.

It seems some advocates are pushing for something based on an extreme form of individualism which takes Margaret Thatcher’s dangerous idea that there is no such thing as society to new heights of choice regardless of the consequences to others.

Even the ‘troubled teen’, we have heard, should not be denied access to the so-called peaceful pill.

Euthanasia has been considered by four State Parliaments in the past two and a half years.

Numerous Parliamentary inquiries have been held, witnesses called, reports written and agonising conscious votes held in Upper and Lower Houses.

After all this careful scrutiny, not one Parliament has accepted the proposition that euthanasia can be made safe.

No wonder the Federal Greens Leader Senator Bob Brown wants to manipulate democracy by by-passing the State and Federal Parliaments to allow the small Territories - where their are less democratic checks and balances - to set the agenda. In the case of the ACT just nine votes in a unicameral assembly – a glorified local council (and I can say that because I live in the ACT) - are all that is needed to set a such a grave precedent for the nation.

One of the people to die under the short lived ROTI Act was an unnamed English migrant. He was taken to a musty house that had been shut up for weeks. Dr Nitschke had to hunt around for sheets to cover the bare mattress. Dr Nitschke later spoke of the man’s loneliness and isolation as he administered euthanasia.

Is this dying with dignity? I think not.