The Political Shifts That Embrace Euthanasia

The Left’s sponsorship of euthanasia or voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws across the nation represents a radical departure from the traditional principles of social democratic politics. Such laws are also alien to traditional conservative politics. However, VAD laws have been primarily put forward by small-l liberals and Left-aligned politicians in Australia. These politicians, such as Alex Greenwich in New South Wales, have presented euthanasia as a “progressive” reform.

Despite being labelled as “progressive”, euthanasia is essentially promoted in libertarian terms. The public debate about euthanasia shows this: it has been fought on the grounds of individual freedom—to be free from suffering and restraint, so to be free to end one’s own life.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Most people who support euthanasia are middle-to-upper-class, mostly liberals in the classical sense, and are concerned with autonomy. For example, in a 2016 report, the concerns of those requesting assisted suicide in Oregon (one of the first jurisdictions to legislate for euthanasia) overwhelmingly centred on “losing autonomy” (91.4 per cent) and concern about an inability to participate in enjoyable activities (89.7 per cent), rather than on pain (only 26.4 per cent).

Libertarian causes are particularly alien to traditional centre-Left politics. Such ideologies have been traditionally opposed by social democratic parties, who have defended collective rights, especially to freely associate, and pioneered safety net systems. Yet, Left-leaning parties and politicians champion bourgeois causes such as euthanasia, which shift them away from their traditional constituency. This change represents a “liberalisation” of the identity of social democratic politics that manifests as a popular “progressivism”.

Similarly, centre-Right politics has undergone a “libertarian” transformation. Traditional conservative limits on liberty are being steadily disregarded by moderate liberals in the same “progressive” cause.

This progressivism, as Noel Pearson identifies, emotively privileges the individual over the collective:

These [Queensland] parliamentarians think the question of assisted dying is first a matter of emotion … The core is the enormity of the shift our society is making with sanctioning the choice of death as yet another freedom of the individual, whereas in the past this was always a question for society.[1]

Such progressivism does not rely on scientific evidence; rather it is driven by the emotivism of anecdotal cases, which reinforce an individualistic ideology. In this respect, Fr Frank Brennan commented that pro-euthanasia advocates in the debate about assisted dying laws in the Queensland Parliament presented few rational arguments and engagement with the other side’s arguments.[2] Instead, they focused on anecdotal cases seeking, as Pearson argues, to prove an “emotional monopoly on the subject of suffering facing death”.[3]

This emotive individualism is characteristic of modern popular culture. It is reinforced by numerous reality television programs and popular music. Political progressivism has drawn from this pop culture, especially as the Left’s collective economic message has largely failed in the West, marked by the defeat of communism and declining union membership.

The ideologies of individualism and libertarianism have been traditionally opposed by both conservative and social democratic parties. The advancement of bourgeois notions of freedoms and individualism have often contended with the rights of families and workers, especially to associate and express their desire for collective rights and conditions. Now centre-Left parties champion such freedoms, which put the most vulnerable at risk.

Despite the anecdotal cases put before the public by pro-euthanasia advocates and the media, there is recurring evidence about the risks of euthanasia. For example, a study of states with euthanasia laws in Current Oncology by Dr J. Pereira found:

laws and safeguards are regularly ignored and transgressed in all the jurisdictions and that transgressions are not prosecuted. For example, about 900 people annually are administered lethal substances without having given explicit consent, and in one jurisdiction, almost 50% of cases of euthanasia are not reported.[4]

Pereira also found that in jurisdictions that legalised euthanasia, it soon changed from a last resort to a first choice, with patients not being given the option of palliative care. Undue pressure and coercion are compounded on the sick and disabled who are often given subtle, systemic messages that they shouldn’t be alive. The late disability advocate Stella Young remarked:

People make all sorts of assumptions about the quality of my life and my levels of independence. They’re almost always wrong. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “I just don’t think I could live like you,” or “I wouldn’t have the courage in your situation,” or, my favourite one to overhear (and I’ve overheard it more than once), “You’d just bloody top yourself, wouldn’t you?”[5]

Alongside the misunderstanding of physical disability is the role that mental health plays in euthanasia. Pereira reports that “studies have identified rates of depression syndromes as high as 40.9% and 58.8% in persons requesting euthanasia or assisted suicide”.[6] However, psychological concerns are often not well assessed or assessed at all.

Instead of their traditional advocacy for the vulnerable against systemic injustice and pressure, both centre-Right and centre-Left politicians are increasingly advancing the cause of individual freedom at the expense of rigorous evidence and their own traditional constituency. For example, recent polling indicated serious doubts amongst large sections of the Queensland electorate about the euthanasia legislation, particularly in relation to the risks to the vulnerable.[7]

It is also revealing that at a time when nations like Australia possess the most effective medical knowledge and means in human history to ease pain and ensure a peaceful death that such treatments are inadequately resourced and not championed by the Left or the Right. Meanwhile, the medical system—whose members are largely opposed to euthanasia—and the broader public are co-opted into facilitating a radical new individual freedom. To obscure these contradictions, “progressive” euthanasia advocates rely on what Pearson calls emotional performativity that cultivates a superficial compassion which presents itself as utterly certain, despite lacking evidence.[8]

This certainty leads to increasing authoritarian forms of progressivism, which is reflected in the trajectory of euthanasia laws in Australian states. For instance, the latest jurisdiction to implement euthanasia, Queensland, has established a system for assisted suicide that rejected conscientious objections, particularly from non-government hospitals. Instead, the government gave itself the power to intervene in these facilities without their consent.

Thus, the political appeal to emotive individualism has been used to advance state power to intervene in the non-government health sector to facilitate euthanasia, contrary to the values of these non-government hospitals. When a person is admitted to a church-provided hospital, they expect an absolute respect for their life, reflective of the religious ethos and values of the facility. The Queensland government refused to respect the autonomy and values of these non-government hospitals. They will not protect the sacred trust that the patient gives to these hospitals, despite the assurances of these facilities that they will respect the wishes of the patient to be transferred to another facility to be euthanised.

While parties across the political spectrum have been seduced by the bourgeois logic of euthanasia, it is alien to conservative and social democratic politics. It has particularly led to a radical change in how life and freedom are viewed by the Left, resulting in the centre-Left championing libertarian causes on social and cultural issues.

With Left-leaning politicians increasingly aligning themselves with a bourgeois progressivism, who will represent the vulnerable masses and stand up for evidence-based social principles in the face of an emotive and superficial individualism? It is heartening to see the New South Wales Liberal and Labor leaders doing so—but will enough of their colleagues join them in shunning emotive individualism?

Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University, Melbourne





[5] Stella Young, “Disability a fate worse than death?”, Ramp Up, 18 Oct 2013, .htm




9 thoughts on “The Political Shifts That Embrace Euthanasia

  • Gordon Cheyne says:

    “While parties across the political spectrum have been seduced by the bourgeois logic of euthanasia, it is alien to conservative and social democratic politics. ”
    No matter how hard you try to politicise it, this remains a question of our own right to choose. No bureaucrat or politician has a right to interfere in the rights of the individual.
    The bullies can clear off, and leave me to choose when I shall go.

  • ianl says:

    Gordon Cheyne – fully agree. I’ve put those points here a number of times, yet the crocodile tears of the “slippery slope” constantly reappear.

    This essay, so full of straw men, so full of its’ own moral superiority … never is the real reason for this put forward. This mindset is far more akin to the leftie view of the world than mine is.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    I have no argument with people having the right to choose when they should go. By all means, kill yourself by whatever means when it suits you. But do not subcontract the killing process out to another individual. If, by chance, you become incapable of killing yourself, too bad, so sad, never mind, don’t cry. Nature will look after you eventually.
    The scope for abuse of euthanasia laws is almost infinite, and it’s a step too far to legalise homicide to suit some individuals.

  • lbloveday says:

    So correct DT: I don’t trust the governments to competently pick up the trash – Heaven forbid I allowed them to say when, where and how another may kill me!
    ” If, by chance, you become incapable of killing yourself….”. You are always capable of not voluntarily eating and, particularly, drinking, and will quickly die of dehydration – ex-PM McEwen did that, as did my father who lasted just 69 hours as he was in very poor health, a healthier person can expect to last maybe a week, certainly far less time than it takes for a bureaucrat to determine that a state-appointed killer can end your life.
    The process of dehydrating is not particularly painful, and anyway if you are already in “unbearable pain”, it can’t make life more unbearable.

    While suicide itself is now decriminalised, helping someone else to commit suicide is still treated very seriously by the law and is still punishable by lengthy imprisonment of up to ten years.
    Anyone who incites or even counsels another to commit suicide is liable for five years in prison if the other person commits or attempts to commit suicide.
    Of course governments skirt these laws in their Euthanasia legislation, but that does not detract from the immorality of it.

  • andrew2 says:

    Conservative is no longer a useful political description, as it has been overtaken by corporation loving, neo-con types.
    As Dr William M Briggs states in his latest book, “Everything You Believe Is Wrong”, the more appropriate term now is “based”.
    There is nothing to “conserve” in a nation that has lost it’s religious foundation. You only fight to delay by 10 years what the “debased” want right now.
    “Based” is knowing what your firm foundation is. If it is Christ, then there is no left or right because He upheld the law and loved the sinner. It simply becomes a question of what “I myself as a based Christian will not participate in”. So a “based” doctor will not participate in Euthanasia even if it costs him is job in a “Catholic” hospital. We are in times similar to Lot in the Bible where the sinful are beating at the door and will seek your ruin if you do not join them. Be prepared to walk away from whatever it is that they expect you to do.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Heavily medicalising the end of life in defined terminal cases in order to assist in the relief of severe pain and true distress, rather than simply a depressive illness, is generally accepted as proper medical practice. Perhaps it should be better codified in order to reassure humanitarian practitioners that they won’t end up sued by relatives who expected a life to be saved beyond humane treatment. A heavily medicalised end is sometimes very necessary and should not of course ever be an alternative to good palliative care; it is often part of palliation. The choice of treatment for the terminally ill depends on good medical judgement, proper surveillance of practitioners, being backed by law and informed by excellent protocols.
    Legalised euthanasia moves the bar far away from this and into uncharted territory: it is so open to manipulative practices that occur far from any real form of oversight. One can imagine the wholesale ‘removal’ of the property-owning demented and ‘difficult’ mentally ill by rapacious relatives or, even worse, ideological euthanasia activists.
    The right of people so damaged by accident or disease that they can no longer function with any semblance of autonomy but who are fully sentient and who wish to leave this life, well, that’s the hard one. Better longer-term and palliative care and technological solutions to incapacity can help here, as they must. Pain and mental distress can be greatly relieved by modern drugs and by loving care.
    Life is tenacious; it was meant to be so.

  • Katzenjammer says:

    VAD laws are not for the person who dies. No law can effect them after the act. VAD laws are to allow someone else to administer a toxic substance.and not be charged with murder or manslaugter.

  • lbloveday says:

    I read a post by someone who “demanded” that Nembutal be available to store at home so his wife could take some when she decided to end the pain of life!

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Some reflections on the Parliamentary debate on euthanasia.
    The deep poverty of those who seek their own death or want to kill by legislative fiat, needs to be recognised.
    These comments are from the context of one who routinely euthanases animals.
    The practice is highly normalised.
    Since commencing work in ’72 the approach by the public has shifted to the death of their pets.
    It has begun to harmonise by the spectrum shift in attitudes to their own lives and the function of the pet as a child substitute, so humanising it.
    As a second year graduate my task was to kill all the unwanted animals on Friday afternoon.
    The large practice I worked in catered as the pound.
    Most were unwanted and very healthy.
    During the 90’s things shifted.
    We had to save pound puppies.
    Reading all the set texts for the HSC every year, suicide was part of the curriculum.
    Malouf’s Johnno describes a love affair where the mischievous hero dies by accidental death driving into a dam and drowning.
    But was it really a joke on the police to work it out?
    Was it a clever suicide?
    In the same year two of the Anthology of Australian Short Stories had a character kill themselves.
    And, of course, there was always Romeo and Juliet.
    What course of action should one take when you are deluded enough to think your lover is dead?
    Working under pressure at the local vet emergency centre brought insight.
    In a conversation with the Superintendent I asked him a basic question.
    When an animal come in and is clearly suffering, how do you obtain written permission and ‘close the case.’
    The scenario was a 20 year old something tradie comes in with a staffie that is clearly dying, say MVA.
    The Superintendent would outline the treatment and hopeless prognosis.
    The tradie would stand in shock.
    After a reasonable time for processing and reflection the vet would say
    ‘Most people would end this now and put Buster down’.
    The tradie would then burst into tears and be handed the permission to euthenase paper work to sign.
    I will return to this.
    Some clients are strongly invested in ending their own life when necessary.
    Its a way of attracting attention while their pet is being euthanised, a sort of self validation as after all, they would behave no differently to themselves as their beloved dog.
    Some, more authentic, have seen loved ones die horribly and want to end suffering quickly, cleanly and without any fuss.
    The more I read of Telegraph articles of human patients in agonal terminal struggles or lacking support the more I am convinced there is a deep need for proper palliative care in NSW.
    In the respiratory area surely the principle of double effect, so often poo pooed by euthanasia advocates, be applied to control and assist those terrible feelings of being unable to breathe.
    We as vets are better at palliation, a new area of vet medicine, than some practices of the reported human patient histories.
    But then palliation and principle of double effect does not answer the need for human self autonomy and a decision to die made by the advocates, who bend my ear during euthenasias.
    Back to my colleague, the Superintendent.
    He was a gentle soul, caring and compassionate.
    He was rejected by his lover and took his own life.
    You see
    ‘Most people would end this now and put Buster down’.
    The act of parliament is now normalising euthenasia.
    For the intelligent, creative and competent the fact that some doctor /legislative fiat forbids it is laughingly irrelevant.
    Simply stated the authentic person can now decide when it is time to die, because the situation demands it, because others in similar situations do so.
    There is no need or time to go through some bureaucratic process, which severely limits the fiat or judgement of the person, who is supreme.
    So who loses on this one.
    The front line is doctors themselves.
    Then comes ambos, dentists and farmers with vets in the mix.
    The resolution of disease can now be to actively kill the patient.
    Some closing remarks.
    Thirty five years ago my daughter was resuscitated at birth.
    Under many jurisdictions today her life would be deemed useless and she would be promptly euthanised.
    The fact that someone, empowered by parliament, can kill patients means that there is no boundary, to that act.
    Some years ago on a Q@A a commentator was asked his attitude to euthenasia.
    He was all in favour of it.
    There was one condition.
    When parliament passed it into law, it should only apply to Parliamentarians, no one else.
    That way they would be incentivised to spend on Health and palliation.
    There would be a 20 year period before the sunset clause.
    Everyone laughed.

Leave a Reply