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Euthanasia: no one is ever satisfied

Euthanasia: no one is ever satisfied

by Paul Russell | January 09, 2017

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It is perhaps a statement of the obvious that those who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide are never happy about the passage of such laws. Paradoxically, those that propose them and those that support them are never really satisfied either.

No matter how the laws are framed, there will always be a developing tension over people who don't qualify. Such is the case at the moment in Canada where, in an act of appeasement to get their law through the Ottawa Parliament last year, a promise was made to look further into euthanasia and assisted suicide for minors, for mental health reasons and via advance directives. Studies are now underway to advance these causes.

The activists wanted more -- but that would have been a bridge too far in the first instance.

A closely related tension also exists during the debate on such laws and in their design. Euthanasia and assisted suicide proposals slide along a continuum. The further the proposals move away from prohibition, the more liberal and inclusive they become. At the same time, protections or “safeguards” as they are often called are rendered more meaningless and simply vaporize.

The tension here is between what pro-euthanasia and assisted suicide activists want and what they will settle to gain a majority vote.

In South Australia last year a bill was put forward that was a long way down that line. The Voluntary Euthanasia Bill 2016 was in essence very similar to the Belgium euthanasia model. It did not limit access to terminal illness but rather simply to a subjective test of “unbearable” and “hopeless” suffering. So-called safeguards were notable by their absence.

The bill was on track to be rejected by a significant majority of parliamentarians when, at the eleventh hour, a raft of amendments was tabled in a desperate attempt to compromise to get the bill through. That the schedule of amendments constituted more clauses and more pages of text than the original bill is testament to both the laxity of the original proposal and the number of concerns raised even by MPs who supported the idea but not the particular form. The new form was itself rightly rejected by a single vote.

Was the first bill an ambit claim or not? Hard to tell. But euthanasia and assisted suicide without restrictions based upon a false claim to a “right to die” and qualified by nothing more than a subjective assessment of unbearable suffering is surely the ultimate; the end goal in the euthanasia long game.

US blogger and nurse Nancy Valko provided a further example of this argy-bargy and dissatisfaction in regards to the assisted suicide bill passed by the District of Columbia in December. She writes:

In a December 2016 commentary article titled “End of Life Liberty in DC” for a publication supported by the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, lawyer and long-time assisted suicide activist Kathryn L. Tucker surprisingly criticizes the new assisted suicide law quietly signed into law by the mayor of Washington, DC. this month.

While most people might believe that passage of yet another assisted suicide law would be cause for celebration for assisted suicide activists, Ms. Tucker is unhappy with the so-called “safeguards” in the DC law...

Ms. Tucker now complains about the “many burdens and restrictions imposed” by these “safeguards” which, ironically, are added by assisted suicide activists themselves when they “routinely face arguments of insufficient ‘safeguards’”.

Valko then provides the list of the safeguards that Tucker clearly rejected. Calling them a “heavy governmental intrusion into the practice of medicine”, Tucker's list is entirely about items that regularly appear in stock-standard bills of this type. As noted, these were clearly absent in the original draft - just as they were in South Australia. As in South Australia, the activists amended their own bill.

It is not difficult to imagine the kind of conversations that probably took place in Washington and in the SA Parliament between activists and legislators. I don't think it at all cynical to observe, in summary, that the conversations would have been about what it would take to gain an MP’s support. Compromise leaves all parties dissatisfied to some degree; for the activist, the pay-off is getting the bill - any bill - through.

It is ever thus.

In the last Western Australian debate in 2010 MP Robin Chapple said that he knew his restricted bill wouldn’t please everyone but that it was a “good start”. This makes clear the reality that someone else can come back and try to amend and expand the remit at some future moment. That same year in South Australia, MP Mark Parnell observed, in reflection upon the failure of his own bill, that too many safeguards would make any bill too restrictive and inaccessible; the corollary of this stark admission is that to make a bill work we must accept an increasing level of risk from abuse.

Victorian MPs should keep this all in mind in the coming months as preparations get underway for a bill to be tabled by the Andrews Government later this year. Once we move away from the extant prohibitions we begin to accept risks and, into the bargain, begin also to abandon the principle that the law and our society's primary task is the protection of all citizens. As the High Court of Ireland has observed:

The evidence from other countries shows that the risks of abuse are all too real and cannot be dismissed as speculative or distant. One real risk attending such liberalisation is that even with the most rigorous system of legislative checks and safeguards, it would be impossible to ensure that the aged, the disabled, the poor, the unwanted, the rejected, the lonely, the impulsive, the financially compromised and emotionally vulnerable would not avail of this option in order to avoid a sense of being a burden on their family and society. The safeguards built into any liberalised system would, furthermore, be vulnerable to laxity and complacency and might well prove difficult or even impossible to police adequately.

Parliamentarians will be told, as I expect they always are in this regard, that the proposal is “only” about a limited cohort and “only” in prescribed circumstances and “only” after certain checks and balances are observed. As though this somehow makes state-sanctioned killing or approved assistance in suicide OK. It doesn't.

When we cross that clear bright line drawn and held in the one place for millennia, we do not simply cross over for the supposed few. If we cross for some, we cross for all. As the House of Lords Select Committee concluded in 1994:

"...to create an exception to the general prohibition of intentional killing would inevitably open the way to its further erosion whether by design, by inadvertence, or by the human tendency to test the limits of any regulation."

We will have enshrined in law the principle that it is OK to kill or to help people suicide - a “right to be made dead”. If it is all about suffering, any restrictions invoking the “only” gambit are really a house of cards.

There will always be Kathryn L. Tuckers.

Paul Russell is director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide, which is based in Australia. This article has been edited and republished from his blog with permission.

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