Euthanasia is a rational and humane cause

By David Swanton

Posted Tuesday, 11 May 2010 in ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


Euthanasia is an issue that divides societies, although it enjoys 80 per cent popular support in Australia and Britain. The issue, however, should be clear. If individuals have the right to their own lives, then euthanasia should be legalised.

The term “voluntary euthanasia” is often used by the state-based Voluntary Euthanasia and Dying with Dignity Associations around Australia and emphasises the voluntary nature of euthanasia. Another definition defines euthanasia as a deliberate act intended to cause the death of the patient, at that patient’s request, for what he or she sees as being in his/her best interests, and clearly euthanasia’s voluntary nature is implicit in this definition.

Regardless of how euthanasia is defined, most of the opposition to euthanasia comes from people who have religious motives and imply that euthanasia is not voluntary, that people would be coerced into a decision. It is precisely the voluntary nature of euthanasia that makes it ethically right.

Many elderly Australians are now choosing to take control of their lives, seeking information and developing their own end-of-life solutions.

Exit International, Dr Philip Nitshcke’s euthanasia advocacy organisation, provides accurate and concise information about end-of-life choices. Its long-term goal is responsible and ethical law reform, such as the Swiss model of decriminalising assisted suicide. The media has reported on terminally ill Australians travelling overseas to access euthanasia through the Swiss legislation, travelling overseas to acquire suitable lethal drugs, or attempting to manufacture drugs to have something in the medicine cabinet - just in case their illness worsens. These people are not mass murderers; they are ordinary (usually elderly) Australians who want control of their lives. It is regrettable that Australians are forced to do this because of the absence of an Australian legislative regime.

People who would choose to have voluntary euthanasia are concerned about their dignity and quality of life, rather than the extension of their life if this involves unnecessary pain, suffering and indignity. If those who oppose euthanasia wish to have unnecessary pain, suffering and indignity, then they may do so. That is everybody’s choice. But euthanasia opponents must not deny others that choice and arrogantly insist, often though sustained pressure for legislative opposition to euthanasia, that others too must suffer.

In 2009, a landmark decision in Western Australia's Supreme Court gave Christian Rossiter , a Perth quadriplegic, the right to refuse food from his care provider on the condition he understood the consequences of his actions. He said that "It's comforting to know that when you say you're going to starve yourself to death no one's going to come along in the night when you've lost consciousness and keep you alive to suffer a bit longer."

This court decision has however posed the following intriguing question. If people have the right to refuse food and die; starving to death over a couple of weeks is inhumane; and societies should not allow people to die inhumanely, then shouldn’t it be reasonable for parliaments to develop a legislative regime for euthanasia to allow people to die humanely and with dignity?

It is difficult to comprehend how many politicians could ignore, or at least fail to act in response to, the incredibly moving and very sad story of Angelique Flowers , the 31-year-old writer who recently died after years of Crohn’s disease and then agonising bowel cancer. She had good palliative care, but it did not alleviate her suffering. Nobody should have to suffer to the extent she did, and vomit faecal matter at the end, but she did. That she had to suffer that way could drive many other Australians to an early demise, in fear, not of death, but of unbearable pain and suffering.

The Pope’s arrogant statement that the ill should pray to find “the grace to accept, without fear or bitterness, to leave this world at the hour chosen by God” is meaningless to those who do not believe in a god, and to many who do. One might suspect that Angelique Flowers would have been very unimpressed, and that most would classify the Pope’s stance as inhumane.

In her eloquent video appeal to the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, which was forwarded to him by Dr Nitschke, Angelique said that “all I want after 16 years of painful Crohn’s disease and now cancer is to die a pain-free peaceful death”. “Because euthanasia was banned in Australia I am denied this right …” Further she said “the law wouldn’t let a dog suffer the agony I’m going through before an inevitable death. It would be put down. Yet under the law, my life is worth less than a dog’s.” Sadly, Kevin Rudd did not respond to the video.

Politicians should consider heartfelt appeals such as that of Angelique Flowers. We cannot, as a civilised society, continue to let people suffer when they are in the most desperate of situations. The large majority of Australians are dissatisfied with the denial of the right to die and the continued intransigence and reluctance of many politicians to support terminally ill Australians. All we need is more politicians with compassion, legislative skills and courage to ensure that individuals have the right to live, and end, their lives with dignity. This is a right that Angelique Flowers was denied. No Australians should have to suffer as she did.

Competent legislators/politicians should be able to develop an effective legislative system for euthanasia. However, Kevin Rudd has been unable to confirm when debate would occur on Greens Senator Bob Brown’s private member’s bill originally introduced a couple of years ago. Senator Brown’s Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2008 would give territory governments the same powers as state governments to legislate for voluntary euthanasia if they wished. Until this Bill is debated in the Parliament, territories are unable to move forward on euthanasia. Whether they vote for euthanasia in their jurisdictions will of course depend on the competence of their legislators and the will of the electorate, but they should at least have the right to enact euthanasia legislation.

Mr Rudd said some time ago that he wouldn't comment on a suggestion euthanasia was already being practised illegally in Australia (Sydney Morning Herald , May 2, 2008). Avoiding the issue doesn’t make it go away.

The Australian Opposition Leader, a devout Catholic, is just as obstinate in his opposition to euthanasia. Politicians who do not act to alleviate the suffering of Australians are arrogantly imposing their personal views on other Australians. It is interesting that when issues such as euthanasia are debated in parliaments, politicians are not required to adopt a party-political position, and are instead allowed to vote according to their “conscience”. It would be hypocritical for anti-euthanasia politicians to vote to impose their religious values on Australians when they would not accept a party-political position being imposed on them. If politicians demand choice (in voting), then they should allow ordinary Australians choice on euthanasia.

I imagine even religious politicians would like to have the choice of dying like Angelique Flowers or having a more peaceful and dignified death. They should not however be allowed to choose for others. Euthanasia is about individual choice and dignity, and for that reason it is a rational and humane cause. Until parliaments have the courage and commitment to act and provide that choice, ordinary Australians will continue to take matters into their own hands.


David Swanton is an ethicist, PhD scientist and director of Ethical Rights. He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.