Euthanasia drug bill's dignified demise

Classic Hospital Room, Bright View for Moody Time, Flickr image by cobalt123The Victorian Upper House voted this month to reject legislation that would have enabled terminally ill patients to ingest a drug to end their lives. The Legislative Council chose wisely.

There is no doubt that those supporting the bill did so with the best of intentions. Many of them have seen loved ones die painful deaths, and have felt immense frustration at their inability to do anything but watch.

Colleen Hartland, the Greens Legislative Councillor and bill's sponsor, spoke in parliament about the 'intolerable pain and suffering' that confronts some terminally ill patients whose only choice at present is to refuse further medical intervention. It is human nature to wish not to see someone in pain, and moreover to seek to alleviate that pain wherever possible.

Yet few would argue that pain alone justifies euthanasia. And if we remove pain from the equation, the arguments in favour of euthanasia become much weaker. Instead of encouraging humane responses to suffering, these arguments become assertions about free will and the unpalatable burdens endured by the very sick and those who care for them.

More than anything, the debates are couched in the language of the desire for a 'death with dignity', the catchphrase of euthanasia supporters.

But if it is death with dignity that is sought, where is the indignity? Is it the indignity of a person trying clumsily to end their own life, where a less messy option might be available? Or is it the indignity simply of being terribly sick, of being incontinent, of having one's family see a person as a shadow of their former selves?

Is it undignified simply to be sick? Hard as it is, I can for a minute imagine myself, or indeed my parents or spouse, being terminally ill, filled with tubes, incontinent, unable to speak. That would be extremely sad, I might well feel undignified,  but would I lose my dignity?

Of greatest concern was the broader message the passage of the Medical Treatment (Physician Assisted Dying) Bill would have signalled. The bill embarked on a pronounced shift. The 'sanctity of life versus quality of life' choice can be rephrased: do we protect life, or protect only those lives deemed worthy of protection?

The problem with shifting from the former to the latter is that once that step is taken, it cannot logically stop with terminally ill patients. Why should it? Why not make euthanasia available to those suffering extraordinary and unrelievable pain?

If one privileges free will in these matters, then such a choice should be available. At present few people value free will this highly. Enactment of the bill would necessarily have made such a choice more palatable.

This is not to advocate the artificial support of life at all costs. The decision to cease taking medicine is made daily in hospitals around the country. And the Victorian Supreme Court ruled wisely in 2003 that the decision to stop tube-feeding an unconscious and terminally ill woman amounted to a lawful decision to cease medical treatment.

It is true that there are serious ethical dilemmas involved when the prescription of pain relief has the effect of hastening a person's death. Again, such decisions are made daily, and legally, where pain relief (and not the end of life) is the main goal. But the decision to permit consumption of a drug whose sole purpose is to end life clearly goes a step further.

I recently convened a discussion on the topic of euthanasia in a fourth and fifth year university class. An international student later pointed to the irony that with all the developments in medical science and all the modernisation that was taking place, 'we are becoming like animals'.

He meant that we have lost the basic human instinct to value the time spent, and compassion involved, in caring for others. The pain, anguish and heartbreak involved are part of what makes us human. Already there is a creeping societal tendency to view caring for others as a duty with no intrinsic value.

This is largely, I suspect, because this role has little material value. We have lost sight of the intrinsic nobility involved in it. No-one is surprised to learn that a disproportionate number of care agencies, and presumably the carers working in them, are religious. They know they cannot look to secular society for rewards.

Still, as we have watched the Paralympics, even the most secular among us have been able to value life in all its forms, and to marvel at the indomitability of the human spirit.

John ChestermanDr John Chesterman is a Senor Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Civil Rights: How Indigenous Australians Won Formal Equality (UQP).

Topic tags: john chesterman, Medical Treatment (Physician Assisted Dying) Bill, euthanasia, Colleen hartland



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Existing comments

I found the discussion of dignity here helpful, since the term often remains undefined in discussion of euthanasia. I agree that dignity is not lost by being very sick or unable to care for oneself or even by losing control of one's bodily functions. Human dignity is innate, and finds expression in how one responds to these circumstances. Being dependent does not mean having no dignity.
Robin Koning SJ | 22 September 2008

A most helpful,sensitive and timely contribution to a debate which, as life expectancy increases, is becoming more and more important for an increasing number of people who are genuinely concerned that they are or could become a burden on others.
David Dyer | 22 September 2008

I was saddened that people who obviously feel for others nevertheless were prepared to deny them agency in determining their life's course. Without agency, one has no dignity.
Warwick | 22 September 2008

Unfortunately, there is nothing palliative care can do in about ten percent of cases.

As far as legality is concerned, the law is impotent at present - no doctors have ever been convicted in Australia, and none are likely to be. It is only a matter of time before legislation is passed in Australian states.
Winston Jen | 22 September 2008

If we can commit suicide with the state's sanction (through refusing treatment and refusing artificial nutrition), why can we not choose a legal drug as well? The only difference is time. The end result is death either way.
Winston Jen | 22 September 2008

A very sensitive and informative essay which reminds us of the human condition and a culture which attempts to remove all vestige of pain and suffering from our society.
Terrence M Casey | 26 September 2008


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