I write to make a submission against the implementation of laws in Queensland to facilitate euthanasia.
I want to start by telling you a story. David was 35, a husband and father of three with a career as a car service manager, when he began suffering severe back pain. He was eventually diagnosed with a tumor on the spine. David was told he would be in a wheelchair by 37 and most likely dead by the time he was 40. He had surgery just as his third child was born. Bedridden, in terrible pain and fearful of the distress he was causing his family, David asked about assisted suicide because he didn’t want his family to watch him die. He was eventually admitted to a hospice but still he thought about ending his life. With good palliative care, his pain was eventually made bearable. He expected the imminent end of his life - but the cancer went into remission.
David now believes he was probably depressed by his illness – in his world he had a good job, a nice house and three lovely children, happy marriage and everything was great. And then it all went wrong.
He now believes that under the pressure of severe illness, which caused him to be severely depressed, thoughts about euthanasia was an easy way out. It’s a decision he is now glad he didn’t take. David’s story is not unique. I hear from many people in our community that during times of severe pain, when it seemed like it would never end, they have been in the position of feeling there was no way out.
But upon the end of that pain, or at least its management, upon reflection those same people tell me how grateful they are that they did not make a decision to end their life whilst their otherwise sound judgment was clouded by the kind of incredible pain that would make almost any person falter. The policy of euthanasia represents a defining moment in who we are as a people. If legalised, it is a fundamental change in the way that we approach human existence – the essence of life. It sends a disturbing message – that there are some people in our community who are better off dead. The impact of that message goes beyond that which can be mitigated by what are often referred to as “safeguards” to assisted suicide.
It means that when a person becomes dependent because of their age, illness or disability, a social pressure will inevitably emerge for that person to – as an act of compassion for their families – end their life, lest they become a burden on others. That culture of dying will permeate our medical and social frameworks, leading to a subtle expectation that those who require care should choose not to be resource-intensive by volunteering to die. Respect for human life cannot be dismissed as a mere matter of religion, although I confess that my faith is an important factor in my opposition to euthanasia. It is about our ethic as a civil society. It is about who we are. Often, proponents of euthanasia frame this issue as a mere matter of personal freedom, of choice. That argument is attractive – particularly to someone approaching this in a secular way – but it is overly simplistic.
It fails to take into account the ways in which extreme pain, depression and the anguish of facing the unknown trials that lie ahead when in receipt of a negative prognosis - can affect an individual’s disposition to the point of clouding judgment. Sometimes slippery slope arguments are dismissed as though they are not logical. That’s a mistake. The notion of a slippery slope is that one starts with a clear cut case, and by a sequence of many small choices, one ends up accepting a practice in circumstances where – had they considered it at the outset – they would have been strongly opposed.
In the case of Holland, where right-to-die legislation has been in place since 2002, there are more examples than I would like to point to that demonstrate how corruptible euthanasia is, despite efforts to build protections into the details. It is evidence of the slippery slope we face. Let me give just a few examples of the circumstances in which Holland’s regime has facilitated suicide that seem a far cry from the circumstances of terminal illness that are usually conjured in this debate. A 54 year old woman with a personality and eating disorder was able to end her life – and Holland’s health minister is on the public record to say that multiple psychiatric patients have been euthanised. A 47 year old mother of two teenage children was euthanised because she found her tinnitus – the ringing of her ears – so unbearable that she wished to die. It is chilling to think that any mother of young children would choose to die, particularly when she was not terminally ill. But it makes a mockery of the sanctity of human life that this was not a matter of public outcry.
In Holland, it is permissible to kill a child on the grounds that it is distressing for a parent to watch that child in pain – whether or not that child might have a prospect of being saved. There is no public outcry.
It says a great deal about the way in which the crossing of this important threshold changes the way that a society values human life.There is not much more ground to be travelled before chronic but non-life threatening illnesses, disabilities or mere age become reasons to end life. Here, we can and must do better. We must invest in palliative care and health care that provides hope and comfort for those suffering pain and fear.
Assisted suicide does not offer real choice, or freedom, as some might argue. It does not alleviate suffering, or address its causes. Some might say that it provides an easy way out of suffering – but the only people I can see that it offers an easy way out to are those politicians who are unwilling to invest in meaningful health and palliative care.
We cannot in one breath pour our resources and efforts to stop suicide in our community, and in the next provide state sanctioned death. We cannot train doctors to heal and then ask them to kill. There is a world of difference between making a natural death more comfortable and giving a right to kill those who – as a politician has in the past put it – find their life unsatisfactory.
It’s easy to think of this subject in the context of loving families wanting to help a loved one fulfill their desire not to suffer. It is the reality that this is not the situation in all families, and that there are many vulnerable people in our community who require protection from family members whose personal financial interests, convenience or impatience would see them push to end the life of that vulnerable person. If the measure of our society is how we treat the vulnerable, then we must not turn away on this occasion.
As former PM Paul Keating put it, this issue is not how many people would choose to die under this law. It is how many people may die when otherwise they wouldn’t. He might be from a different political tradition than I, but I am grateful that this is an issue on which we can cross party lines. There is a sanctity to life that goes beyond today, beyond politics, and, for those of faith, beyond our understanding.
To have the opportunity that is life, we have already more than won the lottery – our chances of being born are one in 400 trillion. What we get as our prize in that lottery is the human experience in all of its complexity – the happiness, the sadness, the victory and the suffering. It all has meaning and it all has value. Even the hardest parts can teach us and those we love new things, build new relationships and grow our understanding of the meaning of life and our place in it.
And I, for one, cannot support a policy that would see us cross the ethical threshold from fostering life to sanctioning death.
Senator for Queensland