Exploring the connections that can be made among three very recent stories in the news, which at first glance seem unrelated, can provide important insights and warnings. These stories are that “post-truth” is the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year; that the Victorian Government will introduce an “assisted dying” bill in the second half of 2017 which, if passed, would legalize physician-assisted suicide and in exceptional cases euthanasia; and that the Australian Law Reform Commission has just released a discussion paper which documents elder abuse in Australia and seeks ways to prevent it.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes “post-truth” in relation to politics: “Post-truth politics (also called post-factual politics) is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Post-truth differs from traditional contesting and falsifying of truth by rendering it [truth] of “secondary” importance.”
Or, one could add, of little or no importance at all.
In contemporary societies we increasingly use the prefix “post”: post-industrial, post-modern, post-feminist, post-religious, and so on, and now post-truth. We know what we were; we know we are no longer that; but we don’t yet know what we now are or are becoming.
Words are the tools of both truth and lies, so words matter. Nowhere is this truer than in the euthanasia debate.
The euthanasia debate
Word changes can be subtle and nuanced. So, for instance, when, as has happened in promoting the legalization of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, more words are used to describe something that already had a name – euthanasia has become “physician assisted dying” and even the word death is dropped – we should know that we are being manipulated and something is being concealed. That something is the intentional infliction of death.
The strongest case for the legalization of euthanasia is made at the level of the suffering identified individual who wants to die when and how they choose. Australian journalist Andrew Denton makes the case for legalizing euthanasia in this way in describing his father’s death. We feel compassion for his father and Mr Denton himself for the suffering they both endured and our hearts rightly go out to them.
In a post-truth society feelings matter more than facts, the heart rules the head. So the facts about the larger impact of legalizing euthanasia – what it will mean for healthcare institutions, professions and professionals; how it will damage foundational societal values, such as respect for human life in general and the prohibition on intentionally killing another human being, except to save life; the impact in the future of normalizing euthanasia; and so on – are ignored or even denied.
Even hard factual evidence is rejected: In Canada the courts accepted the pro-euthanasia claim that in the Netherlands and Belgium, where euthanasia is legal, there was no “logical slippery slope” (the situations and persons eligible for euthanasia expand rapidly and very substantially once it is legalized) or “practical slippery slope” (euthanasia is carried out in breach of the law, especially on vulnerable people). But the evidence is clearly otherwise, as has been recognized by the Irish Supreme Court and most recently the Supreme Court of South Africa.
We can question whether the current “progressive values” stance of giving priority to respect for individual autonomy over upholding values, such as respect for life, needed to protect the common good, means that we have become a narcissistic society, one focussed just on individuals’ claims, and that the denial of facts which would cause us to reject those claims is a “narcissistic unawareness”.
I hasten to add here that I am not denying the importance of feelings — they are one of the central ways of “human knowing” — but facts are, at the least, equally important, not least because good facts are essential for good ethics and good ethics is essential for good law.
And so to the third story where facts are needed and serious concerns raised about the abuse of one group of vulnerable people, namely, the elderly.
Here’s a December 12 ABC website headline: “Elder abuse inquiry calls for power of attorney changes to stop children ripping parents off”.
The post continues “A national register of enduring powers of attorney should be established to prevent greedy children from using the document as a “licence to steal” from their elderly parents, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) says”, referring to an ALRC discussion paper which is part of its inquiry into elder abuse, which includes elderly persons being victims of financial fraud.
The paper notes that “the potential for pressure and coercion in setting up the instruments [the powers of attorney appointing children to act on their parent’s behalf]” and that “early inheritance syndrome” is on the rise.
“With Australians living longer than ever before, the ALRC inquiry heard many examples of children who were impatient to get their hands on their parents’ money and tried to claim their inheritance before they were entitled to it.
This is often described as “early inheritance syndrome”.
“It’s as if the current generation wants it now and somehow they justify that it’s okay to take mum or dad’s money right now,” said Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia CEO, Geoff Rowe.”
There are no concrete statistics on the prevalence of elder abuse in Australia, but a 2016 research report to the Australian Government Attorney-General’s Department states that
“at the international level, the WHO (2015) recently reported that estimated prevalence rates of elder abuse in high- or middle-income countries ranged from 2% to 14% … and that the perpetrators are likely to be related to the victim… [and] one study suggests that neglect could be as high as 20% among women in the older age group (Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health [ALSWH], 2014). Older women are significantly more likely to be victims than older men, and most abuse is intergenerational (i.e., involving abuse of parents by adult children), with sons being perpetrators to a greater extent than daughters.”
So consider in a “post-truth” society the combined effect in relation to elderly persons of “pressure and coercion”, “early inheritance syndrome”, abusers’ self-justification of the abuse, 2 percent to 14 percent of elderly persons being victims of abuse, and women being more at risk than men, in the context of legalized euthanasia. At the very least, we should have second thoughts about whether legalization is a good idea.
Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Until recently, she was Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and Founding Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, Montreal. Her most recent book is Bird on an Ethics Wire: Battles about Values in the Culture Wars.