Safeguards: the Precautionary Principle and the Tasmanian Premier
principle — n: the precept that an
action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and
potentially dangerous (World English Dictionary )
The commitment of newly appointed
Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings to supporting a euthanasia and assisted
suicide agenda in that state’s parliament would seem to elevate the
issue to a new alert level in the Apple Isle. The Labor/Green alliance
forged by her predecessor, David Bartlett, with Greens leader, Nick
McKim will, no doubt, be honoured in the next few months by the
introduction of yet another euthanasia bill; amongst other initiatives
This leaves me to wonder at the enduring
nature (or lack of) and consideration given to the two inquiries
conducted by the Tasmanian Parliament on euthanasia and assisted suicide
in the last decade or so. In 1998 the Community Development Committee’s Inquiry into the Need for Legislation in Tasmania on Voluntary
Euthanasia for the Terminally Ill rejected euthanasia as a bad idea
in clear and emphatic terms. In 2009, the committee set up to examine
McKim’s own Dignity with Dying Bill rejected his approach also.
While the 2009 inquiry dealt
specifically with the bill in question, it inescapably echoed the
findings of the earlier inquiry. The 1998 inquiry, it should be said (to
this writer at least) is a document worthy of being read by anyone
interested in the issue. Certainly, for the current Tasmanian
Parliament, it should be on every MPs reading list.
Consider Finding #8: The Committee
found that the codification of voluntary euthanasia legislation could
not adequately provide the necessary safeguards against abuse.
Remember, this is a general comment
about euthanasia – not about a particular euthanasia bill. In that
context and by reflection on the failure of recent bills here and
overseas and also upon the mounting data showing the rates of abuse from
jurisdictions where euthanasia is practiced, the statement is clearly
true in an absolute sense.
Euthanasia legislation can never be made
safe from abuse. Safeguards, so-called, can never provide certainty.
(As Wesley Smith once observed, safeguards are really only included so
as to make legislators (and all of us into the bargain) feel somewhat at
ease about legislating for killing.)
Interesting that the 2009 inquiry should
then make the following observation: The Dying with Dignity Bill
2009 has been described as containing insufficient safeguards or for
having too many safeguards to enable a sufferer seeking assistance to
end their life. (finding #2)
How is it that a bill could be
simultaneously criticised for having too many or too few safeguards? We
can understand insufficient safeguards in terms of the finding
of the earlier inquiry, but what are we to make of the counter-claim by
some that McKim’s bill contained too many?
South Australian Green MLC, Mark Parnell
gives us a clue in his speeches on his failed attempts in the SA Upper
House in 2009 and 2010:
“One of the dilemmas that we
have got is that we want safeguards, but we do not simply want to put
obstacles in the way of people so that they cannot ever use it. We have
got to get the balance right.” (2009)
“I know that some people will not be happy until enough hurdles are
put in place to make the laws unworkable, and that is always the tension
in law reform like this. We want safeguards. We want strong safeguards,
but the safeguards need to have a purpose behind them, and the purpose
needs to be the prevention of misuse or abuse.” (2010)
“In terms of some of the comments that other members made, the Hon.
Ann Bressington, as she did last time, has sympathy and support for some
of the concepts in voluntary euthanasia and, in particular, the people
in the terminal phase of a terminal illness. That might be something
that we need to revisit: whether the eligibility criteria is simply too
broad for members of parliament to accept, but that will be a decision
for another day.” (2010)
Parnell has a dilemma: not enough
safeguards would mean that his bill would fail to attract enough votes
to pass. Too many safeguards would render his bill ineffective in terms
of its stated aims. His suggestion that ‘we have got to get the balance
right’ would seem to be a denial of the reality that drafting a bill
that would prevent abuse is an impossibility. The inexhaustible
variations to personal circumstances and diagnoses alone should tell us
that; let alone the vagaries of human nature.
So, considering safeguards as points on a
line, we could observe that moving toward fewer safeguards increases
the risk of abuse while swinging back towards more safeguards, while
certainly decreasing risk, can never remove risk entirely.
This would seem to be an argument for
the status quo; that is: a firm no to euthanasia. But on our
line the starting or ‘zero point’ is not a place where no risk exists.
As Parnell also acknowledges, euthanasia already exists; with and
without consent. It is merely, therefore, only a point where we have not
legislated to create an opportunity for abuse, pure and simple.
It strikes me, therefore, that the
precautionary principle should apply in the upcoming debate in Tasmania.
It should fall to the Premier, or to whomever it is that sponsors the
new bill, to prove beyond doubt that no risk of abuse exists in their
model of legislation. The use of this principle is an accepted standard
across the globe in many spheres of activity (such as environmental
protection and drug approval), why not in matters of life and death?
There should always be a higher burden of proof upon those who want to
usher in change than upon those who argue for the status quo.
Nothing personal, but I don’t think the
new Premier is up to it!
Paul Russell is Director and founder of the
national network HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia
Assisted Suicide. Paul has been involved in campaigning and
family and pro-life policy for many years in South Australia and
nationally. This article has been cross-posted from the
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