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September 30th 2010 print

Bill Muehlenberg

The Death Party springs into action

In a culture where worth and value tends to be measured by the bottom line, the call for legalized euthanasia will likely also be assessed in those terms. Financial considerations will tend to trump other concerns, including the right to life. All the more reason to never allow euthanasia to be legalized.

It appears that the party of death never sleeps. Already the Greens have introduced their pro-death bill into Federal Parliament. Bob Brown argued that most Australians support voluntary euthanasia. But I suspect most Australians in fact may not have a clear understanding of just what the euthanasia agenda is all about. 

They are certainly not getting the full story from the pro-death lobby. There are many misconceptions and myths out there that need to be dispelled. One is that this will in fact be entirely voluntary, with no pressure or coercion. But this is just wishful thinking. 

The truth is, the right to die implies a duty to kill. Let me explain. We live in a rights-mad culture. Everyone is demanding a right for this or that. But there are no rights without corresponding duties. An officially sanctioned right must be backed up by the legally enforced means to ensure those rights can be carried out. Thus if society goes down the path of legalised euthanasia, this right to die will lead to its necessary corollary, the duty to kill. 

Indeed, once a society has said that its citizens have the right to die, it will be forced to provide the means to do so. 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. 

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

And as ethicist leon Kass reminds us, the “vast majority of candidates who merit mercy killing cannot request it for themselves.” But we can count on the fact that the “lawyers and the doctors (and the cost-containers) will soon rectify this injustice. . . . Why, it will be argued, should the comatose or the demented be denied the right to such a ‘dignified death’ or such a ‘treatment’ just because they cannot claim it for themselves?” 

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 here by the then Australian 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 (Pierre Ryckmans) 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. 

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. 

And there have been plenty of calls since then to take radical steps in the interests of dealing with our supposed over-population problem. As but one recent example, last year the National President of Sustainable Population Australia said slashing population was the only way to avoid ‘environmental suicide’. Sandra Kanck wants Australia’s population of 22 million reduced to seven million to tackle climate change. 

Again, such calls are not all that 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 centered 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. 

Wesley Smith drives this point home: “If assisted suicide were ever permitted to become a legitimate and legal part of medical practice, in the end it would be less about ‘choice’ than about profits in the health care system and cutting the costs of health care to government and families. The drugs for assisted suicide only cost about $35 to $40, while it might cost $35,000 to $40,000 (or more) to treat the patient properly. The math is compelling, and contains a warning we dare not ignore.” 

In a culture where worth and value tends to be measured by the bottom line, the call for legalized euthanasia will likely also be assessed in those terms. Financial considerations will tend to trump other concerns, including the right to life. All the more reason to never allow euthanasia to be legalized.