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Living with dignity

  • 13 August 2008
'Often the test of courage is not to die but to live.' Count Vittorio Alfieri may have written these words over 200 years ago, but they ring just as true today in an Australia seemingly seduced by death.

In March, Senator Bob Brown introduced a private senator's bill into federal parliament to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, thereby allowing territories to legalise euthanasia. Then, in April, the former Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Clem Jones, left a bequest of $5 million to fund a campaign for the legalisation of euthanasia.

Next, in May, Victorian Greens MP, Colleen Hartland, put forward a private members bill to introduce 'voluntary euthanasia'.

These pieces of legislation, and the accompanying commentary, are often framed in terms of compassion and dignity. Opponents of euthanasia, or the oft-used palatable euphemisms such as mercy killing or death with dignity, are accused of being heartless and cruel.

Yet how many of us take the time to listen beyond media-friendly sound bites, and really engage with what may be one of the gravest, yet most subtly redefining issues of modern humanity? We fail the generations that follow if we shy away from the courageous examination of the issues at play in this current debate.

We must examine the notion of choice. Those in the pro-euthanasia movements often speak of euthanasia as a choice, and demand that every Australian be given the choice to end their life. However, there is an intrinsic flaw to this suggestion. To say that euthanasia is a choice denies the fact that the decision to end your life is rarely made apart from factors that place immense pressure on the individual.

For public debate to have integrity we must acknowledge that an often unspoken, yet powerful, influence in decisions relating to euthanasia is fear. Whether it is fear of pain, fear of losing physical or mental control, or fear of being a 'burden' to family, this fear is powerfully persuasive. And fear makes you vulnerable.

Ending your life is rarely, if ever, a decision made by those who are free from encumbrances. The decision to kill oneself is only ever made by those, or for those, who are vulnerable in some way — physically, mentally or emotionally.

While conversations about euthanasia are puzzlingly divorced from community dialogue on suicide, it is instructive for us to consider the