The Australian state of New South Wales legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide yesterday. Members of the Upper House supported the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2022 by a margin of 23 to 15. Both the Premier and the Opposition Leader had opposed the bill, but they still allowed MPs a conscience vote.
This means that “assisted dying” is now legal in every Australian state. And tomorrow a Federal election takes place. The new parliament will be immediately be pressured to permit the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located, and the vast but sparsely populated Northern Territory, to legalise it there as well.
“Voluntary assisted dying”, of course, is a euphemism for permitting doctors to kill consenting patients. As has often been remarked, this changes the nature of the medical profession and puts vulnerable people at risk. But now is not the moment to lament another victory for the culture of death. It is a moment to demand accountability from the activists, doctors and politicians who “own” this legislation.
VAD has been debated in Australia at least since 1995, when the Northern Territory legalised it, although Federal Parliament passed a law overturning it in 1997, employing a rarely-used constitutional power. The MPs then were overwhelming opposed to VAD.
Why has public opinion swung so sharply in favour of a practice which was regarded with horror only a few years ago? Here are a few conjectures.
The Zeitgeist. The one word which trumps all arguments against VAD is “autonomy”. The summit of human dignity is independence and not having to rely upon others – which is the condition that most elderly people face. In its annual report on assisted dying, the American state of Oregon publishes the reasons cited by people who choose “death with dignity”. At the very top of the list for 2021 is “losing autonomy”, with 93 percent. About 68 percent say that they fear becoming a burden. “Inadequate pain control, or concern about it” was only cited by 27 percent.
Australia’s ageing population. Baby boomers, who will be the principal “beneficiaries” of VAD, may suffer from loneliness more than previous generations. In 2018 the Wall Street Journal published a controversial article which argued that “Baby boomers are aging alone more than any generation in U.S. history, and the resulting loneliness is a looming public health threat.” Much the same applies to Australia. But many baby boomers are active and determined. Activists have not found it difficult to recruit foot-soldiers.
White privilege. Oddly enough, at a time when critical race theorists are urging people “to check their white privilege”, the assisted suicide movement is driven by people who are white, well-off, worried and well. “Look who supports voluntary assisted dying” says the website of Dying with Dignity NSW. Look – and all the faces are famous and white. Go Gentle Australia, which ran a very effective campaign in favour of changing the law, hosts a story wall with the testimonies of dozens and dozens of people who want assisted dying. Nearly all the faces are white.
Black voices have been ignored. Two of the most prominent Aboriginal politicians in the country, Pat Dodson and Ken Wyatt, have opposed VAD. “The evident lack of public commentary on Aboriginal self-determination … concerns me, because it fails to recognise Aboriginal ideas on civil society or other concerns with its quality,” Senator Dodson said.
Lack of transparency. Very little negative news about assisted suicide and euthanasia surfaces in the media – compared to the proliferation of maudlin essays about the candlelight bedside vigils with Simon and Garfunkel crooning in the background as so-and-so fades away, beyond pain for ever. There are good reasons for this. The statistics gathered are very scant indeed, And only people who support the decision are present at the final moments. They are unlikely to report problems – and dead men tell no tales.
Oregon, the first American state to legalise assisted dying, gathers the most data about deaths, but succeeding states have reduced the information required. The new law in New South Wales is basically modelled on Oregon’s, as are the laws in other Australian states – but it records much less data. We will never know whether there were difficulties in taking the medication, the time between the request and death, how long it took for patients to become unconscious, and how long it took for them to die. Most importantly we will not know the patients’ reasons for requesting VAD,
As I wrote before: “The Bill seems written to produce as little useful information about VAD in NSW as possible. That is very odd in a statistics-mad society. If statistics are not gathered, how will MPs know whether the legislation is working or not?”
Politicians are bored. A politician told me that his colleagues’ eyes glaze over when he attempts to discuss the dangers of VAD. Nothing illustrates this better than this week’s vote in the NSW Upper House. About 100 amendments were proposed – and all but a handful were voted down. I was surprised that even three or four managed to pass – but they were only minor tweaks. An amendment which would have given hospitals and nursing homes a kind of conscientious objection was voted down.
While legalising euthanasia is literally a matter of life and death, it’s just another issue for many politicians. Perhaps they reflect the mood of the community. On May 17, according to Google Trends, which measures the relative importance of issues in the news, euthanasia scored 2 in NSW; inflation, 7; and Amber Heard, 80. What were they talking about in the corridors of Parliament House this week?