In the light of the way in which politicians (Australia-wide) have conducted their debates on “voluntary assisted dying” legislation, there comes a time when someone needs to remind politicians of the way in which public policy should be handled by them.

Emotionalism and euphemisms

MPs need to leave their emotionalism and emotional stories (which cannot be independently verified) at the door. This is a public policy debate with major implications for the criminal law’s general prohibition against killing the innocent.

Politicians should insist that euphemisms not be used and that the clear meaning of words be employed. Thus, euthanasia means killing according to all dictionaries. “Voluntary assisted dying” can mean almost anything but what the various bills in our State Parliaments mean is assisted suicide or self-killing.

These two first principles are widely disregarded as so many of our elected representatives indulge in stories about hard cases and use forms of words that obscure an intelligent consideration and analysis of the reality of what is being proposed by these “voluntary assisted dying” bills. 

The first duty of government

MPs need to be reminded that their primary role is to make public policy, to pass laws which protect the life and security of citizens and the state. It is NOT simply about legislating to impose a personal preference or choice to satisfy one sectional interest or to palliate one’s own psychological frailties where human suffering is concerned.

Australia is a member state of the United Nations and has committed itself to the UN Charter which contains the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). According to the UDHR by which we are bound, the rights to life and liberty are inalienable rights, rights of which a person cannot be deprived by others or by the state, a right of which a person cannot even deprive himself or herself.

This is crucial.

If, for example, someone wants to sell himself as a slave, the money going to support his wife and children at a time of high unemployment, the state will simply not allow it. If some can give away their right to freedom, even for a good motive, then this exception to the ban on slavery will make it more difficult for the state to protect impartially the right to liberty/freedom of other citizens.

Any exception to the criminal law banning the killings of the innocent or assisting in their suicide makes it impossible for the state to carry out its duty to protect the lives of other citizens especially the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

This fundamental point was identified by Enlightenment scholars such as Thomas Hobbes at a time when the rights of human beings were being considered and codified. (To Kill or Not to Kill, pages 351, 361-364)

The practices of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia

From the documented experience of countries that have legalised euthanasia and/or physician assisted suicide the evidence shows us that you cannot legislate safe limits around mercy killings. Once the prohibition against killing the innocent is removed for some cases, the evidence shows that as many or more are killed without their knowledge and consent. This is because there is nobody there independently watching over patients. Since doctors and nurses are the ones doing the killings or assisting suicides, they are not independent observers. They are participants and very unlikely to alert authorities to any breach of the law in which they have been involved or which they have witnessed.

Furthermore, experience in other countries shows that once you make an exception for certain cases, the wall against the killing of the innocent has been breached, these exceptions are gradually expanded to include other cases such as children, the demented elderly, the permanently unconscious, and those with mental health issues including those who are just “weary of life” as is the case in The Netherlands and Belgium.

Most of the new cases are not voluntary since the capacity to consent is no longer present. (see pages 364-402 of To Kill or Not to Kill, and especially pages 394-402)

We should not be surprised by these developments since they have always been a part of the “killing agenda”. In the early days of euthanasia parliamentary debates in the UK, the author of the 1950 Voluntary Euthanasia Bill, Lord Chorley, told the House of Lords about his real intentions and the way to achieve his eugenic goal to rid the world of the ‘unproductive’.

“One objection to the Bill, he said, is that “it does not go far enough, because it applies only to adults and does not apply to children who come into the world deaf, dumb and crippled, and who have a much better cause than those for whom the Bill provides. That may be so, but we must go step by step” (To Kill or Not to Kill, pages 488-489).

The reaction to that comment was fatal to any chance of success for Lord Chorley’s Bill. Consequently, the most vocal supporters of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide now use euphemisms and weasel words to make the unpalatable seem palatable, and the real agenda covert.

First, get “conservative euthanasia and PAS Bills” passed. Once the principle of doctors killing patients has become accepted, there will be moves to expand the range of cases to which euthanasia should be applied. That is exactly what has happened in both Belgium and The Netherlands, as my book explains.

Personal beliefs and polls

Whatever individual MPs consider to be personally morally acceptable, or what opinion polls may seem to favour, does not settle the issue. A responsible Parliament must attend to enunciating public policy which meets the criteria for responsible government, chief of which is the obligation to impartially and objectively pass legislation which secures for all citizens their rights to life and security, and especially for those who are most vulnerable. Any legislation which weakens the capacity of the state to protect its own must be voted down.

Opinion polls are crude measurements of feeling but not necessarily of informed and morally sound judgment. They cannot be used to justify MPs ignoring their fundamental obligations where the making of public policy is concerned (To Kill or Not to Kill, pages 485-488).

Invoking personal autonomy does not settle the issue either. First, we are talking about the use of one’s autonomy to annihilate one’s autonomy. Second, an individual’s personal choice must be balanced against the common good. There is an overriding public interest to be preserved in protecting the rights to life and security of all citizens. (To Kill or Not to Kill, pages 488-491).

The medical profession must be protected from itself, and patients protected from the hubris of some doctors who lay claim to be the rightful authors of death as well as the protectors of health. History is littered with evidence of medical aggression, which is why the profession itself has ruled that euthanasia and physician assisted suicide are unethical and not to be countenanced by the profession. Legalising medical killings undermines public confidence in the medical profession.

Especially important are the concerns of indigenous peoples who still live outside of cities and towns. Their history with Western medicine has taught them to be very wary of the power and authority of doctors (To Kill or Not to Kill, pages 479-484).

Conclusion

Much of the current parliamentary debates on legalising the assisting of patients to kill themselves or even being killed by a health care professional has been remarkably superficial.

Politicians simply refuse to accept the data about the impact of such legislation, that as many or more are killed without their knowledge and consent, and that physician assisted suicide leads to demands for the legalising the practice of euthanasia (doctors killing their patients at the request of the patient).

Also ignored is the clear evidence that once these practices are approved for hard cases, legislation is then advanced to provide for more and more cases including for those who claim to be “tired of life”, as in The Netherlands and Belgium, the demented elderly, the mentally ill, and children.

Leaving emotionalism out of the debate, eschewing the use of euphemisms, and attending to the hard evidence available should be sufficient for our elected representatives to understand that whatever their personal opinions about the ethics of medical killings, to pass such legislation would be to enact unwise and dangerous public policy.

To pass such legislation would represent an abandonment by our elected representatives of their obligation to safeguard the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and security of person.

John Fleming is a 77-year-old retired academic. After completing his undergraduate degrees in politics and psychology, he completed his PhD at Griffith University in 1992 in philosophy and medical ethics....