The Australian Senate is currently debating the merits of assisted suicide.
Strictly speaking, the bill before the Senate is not about assisted suicide, but about the powers of Australian territories to legislate for it. Back in 1997 Parliament passed an act which effectively nullified the Northern Territory’s ground-breaking euthanasia act. The current bill would allow the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory to pass end-of-life laws.
Independent Senator David Leyonhjelm, a libertarian veterinarian, introduced the private member’s bill and is its leading proponent.
The vote in the Senate will be close. And the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is not keen to have the bill debated in the House of Representatives, as it would be divisive and time-consuming. So the outcome of Senator Leyonhjelm’s initiative is far from certain. But it is significant. Even if it were to pass only in the upper house, it would give right-to-die supporters a huge boost. Euthanasia is already legal in the state of Victoria and bills to legalise it failed by narrow margins recently in Tasmania and South Australia.
LATE FLASH — The Leyonhjelm bill was voted down in the Senate a few hours ago.
Leyonhjelm’s party policy is conventional libertarian boilerplate. You should be able to do whatever you want so long as you don’t harm anyone. The website explains that:
“We believe in the inalienable right of individuals to end their lives painlessly, at a time of their choosing, and to be legally able to obtain information and assistance to do so with dignity … If the law prevents rational adults from making free choices about what we can do with our own bodies then we are not really free at all, because our bodies do not belong to us but to the State.”
This would be more persuasive if you could be sure that Leyonhjelm takes a benevolent view of the human condition. I have my doubts.
His Facebook page displays a short video in support of his bill. The Senator is sitting in a comfy armchair patting a large, placid, hairy brown dog. He explains assisted suicide and euthanasia as follows: euthanasia is “what vets like me do to old suffering pets who can’t communicate consent.” This sounds ominous both for Fido and for residents of the ACT and the NT — because the bill, if passed, will enable their legislatures to legalise assisted suicide as well as euthanasia. Leyonhjelm’s explanation is a distinction without a difference.
The Senator’s case would be more convincing if he had channelled his inner Mother Teresa. He should have been grasping the withered hand of a constituent gasping in a nursing home bed, or hugging a young cancer patient in a hospital ward. Instead, he talks about putting people down while petting a dog.
Perhaps he is more comfortable with animals than with humans. At least he has form in euthanizing them. His party's policy statement on assisted suicide reflects his experience as a vet: “While most fair-minded people accept that painlessly terminating the suffering of animals is a humane act of compassion, and this is recognised by the law, the law prohibits the application of the same principle to our own species.”
Problem is, Senator, humans aren’t just animals. They find a meaning in suffering that eludes irrational animals.
Does Senator Leyonhjelm really grasp the difference? In one of his characteristic outbursts in Parliament a couple of years ago, he defended childless-by-choice Australians and complained about anklebiters in terms that left little doubt about his attitude toward the next generation. “It is bad enough that people continue to bring wave upon wave of these little blighters into the world. The least they can do is immunise their bundles of dribble and sputum so they do not make the rest of us sick.”
I take offense at that. Everyone should. Once upon a time we were all young bundles of dribble and sputum and, God forbid, we could easily end our days as old bundles of dribble and sputum.
Who knows? But what we do know is that Senator David Leyonhjelm is unlikely to vote to subsidize expensive bundles at either end of the life cycle. He is blind to the human spirit beneath the frailties of the vulnerable and sick.
That’s the problem with most arguments for assisted suicide and euthanasia. They are put forward by Leyonhjelm clones who blithely invoke the words ”humane” and “compassionate”. But these libertarians are clueless about how to give hope and dignity to real human beings in the midst of their suffering. Can Australians trust the Senator and his supporters to draft a law which could eventually turn being an old “bundle of dribble and sputum” into a death sentence?
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet