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September 03rd 2008 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Some Objections to Legalised Euthanasia

There are many reasons why we should not legalise euthanasia.

There are many reasons why we should not legalise euthanasia. To deal adequately with them all would make this article far too long. So here I wish to concentrate on just two considerations. But before proceeding, let me make a few brief remarks about terminology.

Ethicist Leon Kass has said that the ambiguity of the term “right to die” blurs the “difference in content and intention between the already well-established common-law right to refuse surgery or other unwanted medical treatments and hospitalization, and the newly alleged ‘right to die.’ The former permits the refusal of therapy, even a respirator, even if it means accepting an increased risk of death. The latter permits the refusal of therapy, such as renal dialysis or the feeding tube, so that death will occur. The former would seem to be more about choosing how to live while dying, the latter mainly about a choice for death.”

Euthanasia, then, is about one thing only: the intentional killing of a person. It does not matter whether this is done with a gun or a lethal injection – the effect is the same. With this understanding in place, let me here offer two major objections to legalised euthanasia.

The right to die implies a duty to kill

There are no rights without corresponding duties. If society goes down the path of legalised euthanasia, this right to die will lead to its corollary, the duty to kill. Once a society has said that its citizens have the right to die, it will be forced to provide the means to do so. That is, if a state says there is a legal right to die, logically, anyone can bring suit to ensure that governments comply. Just as today society tells us a woman has a right to abort her own child, so it provides, via Medicare and tax-payer funding, the means to carry out this activity.

Indeed, once legalised, it is possible that doctors may one day face lawsuits if they violate someone’s rights by not killing them. As one commentator put it, “Imagine doctors purchasing malpractice insurance that covers ‘denial of death’ suits. That day may not be far away.”

For all the talk about choice, about freedom to choose, about giving people options, the legal and social legitimisation for assisted suicide will effectively eliminate one option, namely, staying alive without having to justify one’s existence. With legalised euthanasia, the burden will be upon people to justify being alive – we will have to prove that we ought to be allowed to live. Lest that sound too far out, consider the words spoken in 1984 by the then Colorado Governor Richard Lamm who said, “Elderly people who are terminally ill have a duty to die and get out of the way.” Or recall the comments made in this country by the then Governor-General Bill Hayden who, thinking of his own advancement in years, spoke of “unproductive burdens” which we need to be “disencumbered” of via euthanasia.

But as Simon Leys has noted, why is Bill Hayden as a senile, incoherent old man in a wheel chair (one day) any less of value and worth than Bill Hayden was as Governor-General? A society that allows such distinctions is one that has “simply forsaken the very principle of civilisation and crossed the threshold of barbarity”.

Moreover, would Hayden set up a test whereby we determine who is an unproductive burden? Will people be forced to give written evidence as to why they should be allowed to remain alive? After all, in a world of scarcity, such proposals are not all that far off. Indeed, some people are calling for such measures already.

Some people, concerned by what they see as a crisis in over-population, have called for a drastic reduction in population levels. Consider some existing proposals: one Australian Museum palaeontologist told a Canberra Parliamentary audience in March 1995 that Australia should aim for a population target of fewer than 10 million by the end of the century. What will become of the other 8 million Australians is anybody’s guess.

In 1995 a Gosford councillor told an inquiry into population control that people who choose to have three children should be compulsorily sterilised and forced to pay the government $200 per fortnight. He also said that couples who choose to have no children should be given a “community service award” of $50,000 and $200 a fortnight until they are age forty five.

And in 1992 the then Leader of the Democrats, John Coulter, told a Sydney audience that no Australian family should have more than two children. All these respected leaders in Australia have come up with fairly draconian measures to cut back population growth. It does not take much imagination to see that euthanasia will be enlisted to support such population-reduction goals.

Again, this is not farfetched. In January of 1994 the Economic Planning Advisory Commission (EPAC) discussed the rising costs of health care for the elderly. In its publication EPAC actually looked at the issue of euthanasia as one option in the whole discussion. There was no talk about alleviating suffering or being compassionate – the whole proposal centred on cost-cutting measures.

Indeed, it is estimated that around half of all health care dollars are spent on people in their last six months of life. Thus cost considerations are increasingly becoming a major part of the decision making process. In a recent case of a brain dead man on life support, a Monash University medical ethicist said that there would be a high cost involved in maintaining the man, so the economic factor would have to be considered in deciding his fate.

The most vulnerable will be at risk

Another problem with legalised euthanasia is how it will impact on the vulnerable. The elderly will especially be at risk. A poll taken in the Netherlands some years ago found that almost all of those living in nursing homes opposed euthanasia. And with good reason, given the way euthanasia has been practiced there. Similar feelings can be found in disabled persons. Comments like those by Bill Hayden can only multiply such situations.

Legalised euthanasia will put pressure on people for a number of other reasons. For example, family members who may gain from a person’s will may wish to speed along the death of someone in the family. And the most vulnerable will be on the defensive. The entire class of the elderly, terminally ill and disabled people will have to justify their own existence.

But it is not only the elderly, the infirm or the disabled who are at risk. Soon everyone could be at risk. If someone is suffering from depression or loneliness or some other non-life threatening illness, cannot they ask for euthanasia as well? After all, if we decide that people are entitled to take their own lives, why limit it to the elderly? Why not terminate any life at any time?

If we declare that everyone has a right to die, then how can we say only certain people can be euthanased? In an age fixated on rights, and on equal rights for all, anyone can demand, and receive, the same treatment. Indeed, doctors in the Netherlands have been reported as taking the life of non-elderly people who asked to be euthanased simply because they were depressed. The Royal Dutch Medical Association has said that teenagers and children should have the right to choose to be killed, even without parental consent. As David van Gend put it, “Once the fundamental ‘right’ to euthanasia is created, that right must be and is being extended to all who claim fundamental humanity”.

Indeed, the situation in the Netherlands continues to deteriorate. A new bill introduced recently in the Dutch government would allow anyone over twelve years of age to choose the right to die. In case of 12 – 16 year-olds disagreeing with their parents, the child’s wishes will be met. One Dutch cancer specialist said this in support of the bill: “I think if these people want to die then it is their right. There are situations where a 16-year-old manic depressive should be allowed to die”. And a recent case of a 15-year-old Dutch girl who was euthanased shows this is not just theory.

Giving depressed young people an easy way out is simply unthinkable, given our very high rates of youth suicide. Indeed, some euthanasia advocates would only compound the problems. Consider the proposal by Dr Philip Nitschke to allow anyone, including troubled teens, to get access to suicide pills.

For these and other reasons, euthanasia, or assisted-killing, should never be legalised. Instead, more effort should be put into reducing pain, not killing the sufferer. With the issue of youth suicide so often in the public spotlight, we need to heed the words of the 1993 Report of the British House of Lords on euthanasia: “The message which society sends to vulnerable and disadvantaged people should not, however obliquely, encourage them to seek death, but should assure them of our care and support in life.”