Euthanasia: the clergy and religious politicians are wrong

By David Swanton. 

Posted Thursday, 17 February 2011 in in ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


Senator Bob Brown’s Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010 will be debated soon in the federal parliament. If passed, the Bill will repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which removed the right of the Territories to legislate for euthanasia (a voluntary act, defined below). It will not legalise euthanasia.

Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Pat Power (Who can tell when it is right to die?, 8 February) recently argued against euthanasia, in response to my earlier article advocating support for euthanasia and Senator Brown’s Bill (Canberra Times, 31 Jan 2011). It is highly probable that he and many religious politicians will try to defeat Senator Brown’s Bill. It is disturbing that an ACT, NT or Norfolk Island citizen, or any competent Australian citizen, could argue that Territorians should not have the same rights as Australians living in States to legislate for euthanasia.

Bishop Power’s case against euthanasia is fundamentally flawed, based as it seems to be on the assumption that his religion’s views against euthanasia should be imposed on everybody, as I discuss later. There are also significant errors in his arguments. Bishop Power regrettably quoted out of context my definition of euthanasia to suggest that bankrupt people could access euthanasia if they were depressed. Nothing could be further from the truth. I noted that there are many legislated means of ensuring euthanasia is voluntary, including having patients examined by a number of doctors, including a psychiatrist. Clearly doctors are engaged to examine patients with terminal illnesses, and not to attest to their bankruptcy.

Legislative models used overseas and proposed by euthanasia advocates only allow euthanasia as an option for articulate, lucid terminally ill people not suffering from clinically treatable depression. If an additional condition was required, terminally ill people could be required to place their names on a euthanasia register for six months before being permitted to request euthanasia. The ACT Greens MLA, Amanda Bresnan, has proposed a legislative model involving a voluntary euthanasia board, and assessments by doctors (Canberra Times, 7 February). Such precautions are necessary and commonplace around the world to protect people whose minds might be easily swayed, and they are effective because such people would not have the mental resolve to convince a psychiatrist that their euthanasia decision was made voluntarily.

Euthanasia is defined as a deliberate act intended to cause the death of a patient, at that patient’s request, for what he or she sees as being in his or her best interests (often called active voluntary euthanasia). Clearly, euthanasia’s voluntary nature is implicit in this definition, and this is recognised by the 85% of Australians who support it. It is precisely the voluntary nature of euthanasia that makes it ethically right. Bishop Power mistakenly disputed the popular support for euthanasia in Australia. If he had checked the Australia-wide poll conducted in 2009 by Newspoll he would have indeed discovered that 85% of those surveyed support the right of a “hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering” to ask for and gain assistance with a lethal dose­ (euthanasia). I would encourage Bishop Power to base his arguments on evidence.

Despite the overwhelming public support for euthanasia, the voluntary nature of euthanasia still confounds euthanasia’s outspoken opponents: mostly religious politicians, leaders and zealots. They claim that euthanasia is not voluntary, that people would be coerced into a decision, and that people would be killed without their consent. The simple analogy “consensual sex is to rape as euthanasia is to murder” highlights the relationship that almost everybody comprehends: that consensual sex and euthanasia are voluntary and should be permissible. It is patronising and arrogant to suggest that articulate, lucid individuals of sound mind are vulnerable and cannot make their own end-of-life decisions. Individuals can choose their own sexual partners, make financial decisions, write their wills, and even choose to have life support withdrawn, and without Bishop Power and religious politicians acting as their moral guardian.

If Bishop Power and religious politicians legitimately oppose euthanasia with appropriate legislative measures because they are concerned about a patient’s vulnerability, then they should also oppose the withdrawal of life support for terminally ill patients (currently legal and supported by everyone) because the same vulnerability concerns exist. But they don’t, and nor should they. So it would seem that patient vulnerability (as it can be protected legislatively) is perhaps but a ploy to deflect attention from their main purpose, which one can reasonably surmise is their determination to impose their religious beliefs on other people. Regrettably, many religious politicians follow this lead.

Barack Obama, as a Senator, correctly recognised that governments must not legislate based on politicians’ religious beliefs. He said “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

Many Australian politicians lack the ability of President Obama to separate their religious beliefs from their political responsibilities. They must understand that their religion is not amenable to reason and must not be forced on others. Bishop Power and the clergy must do likewise.

Bishop Power is very supportive of palliative care, and rightly so. Compassionate people would agree that the best possible palliative care be available to all who want it. But when palliative care can no longer alleviate the suffering of people such as a young Angelique Flowers , who suffered a bowel blockage and vomited her own faecal matter before dying, then euthanasia is clearly an option that many people would like to choose. All people, including Bishop Power and religious politicians, should view Angelique’s video and they would realise that the current legislative environment is inhumane and deplorable. Anything short of legalised euthanasia with appropriate controls would be a shameful reflection on the politicians who govern us.

A better-funded palliative care system could benefit those terminally ill patients who want to stay alive at all costs, regardless of their quality of life (which of course is their choice). Unfortunately governments must make decisions about allocating finite resources; that’s the nature of a modern economy. Currently governments are choosing to spend billions of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars keeping alive terminally ill people who do not wish to be kept alive rather than spending billions of dollars on additional palliative care for people who wish to stay alive. Every rational terminally ill person, whether they would choose euthanasia or not, would disagree with them. Religious politicians and the clergy seem oblivious to this irony.

Bishop Power also commented that it would be a “frightening prospect to be governed by people lacking in any deeply held principles” if religious politicians were to leave their religious principles at the doors of parliament. He is scaremongering. Many people, and most people supportive of individual rights, have very strong principles; it’s just that they are not Bishop Power’s. Although I disagree with Bishop Power’s religious beliefs, what he and religious politicians believe is not the problem here, rather it is that they deny others the liberty to make their own end-of-life decisions. Ordinary, well-meaning religious people do not impose their views on others, and they comprise much of the 85 per cent who support euthanasia. Fantastic. I, and others who make the case for individual liberty and euthanasia, must continue to stress that it is the imposition of politicians’ values, religious or otherwise, on the individual lives of other people that is offensive, and contrary to libertarian principles. Euthanasia advocates simply demand individual choice for all and object to other peoples’ religious views being forced on them by legislative fiat.

Liberty is paramount in any democratic society, and the classic declaration of John Stuart Mill is as relevant now as ever: “over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign”. If liberty is being threatened, by organised religion through religious politicians, then all free-thinking people should rally against the threat. The threat is more reprehensible when it is terminally ill people who suffer pain and indignity as a consequence of being denied the liberty to make their own end-of-life decisions. Individual liberty demands that everyone is responsible for his or her own body, not Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Ron Boswell or Pat Power. Before imposing their views on others, perhaps Bishop Power and religious politicians should consider their own religious principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Bishop Power and religious politicians would do well to accept Barack Obama’s challenge and translate their concerns against euthanasia into universal values, “amenable to reason”. They should consider the following ethical thought experiment. How would each of them rationalise his or her presumed beliefs that death and horrendous murder is good and permissible if the biblical god he or she believes in causes it, while the peaceful death of terminally ill patients, at their own request, when acute or chronic suffering is the alternative, is unacceptable? A belief that death is only acceptable when the deity of your religion causes it is not something that Barack Obama would state is a “principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all”. If euthanasia continues to be banned in the absence of a satisfactory argument amenable to reason, then democracy fails us.

It will nonetheless be a difficult task to change the quite entrenched views of many religious politicians when they vote on Senator Brown’s Bill, even though it is a Bill supporting Territory rights. However, if Senator Brown’s Bill does not pass and the Legislative Assemblies in the Territories continue to prohibit euthanasia, then there is a solution. Dr Philip Nitschke, through his organisation, Exit International, is empowering many Australians and people around the world with information, much to the ire of religious politicians, so that people can, and do, order their euthanasia drugs, as they have been doing for some years. Australia’s federal politicians can either vote for Senator Brown’s Bill, or bury their heads in the sand. If the latter, politicians will be ignoring the fact that most Australians want the option of euthanasia and many are doing something about it in the absence of real political leadership.


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