Written by Anna Krohn, National Bioethics Convenor
Often the ethical, cultural and legislative campaigns for euthanasia are so unremitting that those many people defending the sanctity of life suffer a type of campaign “fatigue”.
Symptoms of this fatigue can include existential burn-out and a type of ethical depression. We can start to believe that those campaigning for euthanasia and assisted suicide have all the celebrities, all the progress, all the funding, all the media headlines and all the emotional energy. It is worth discussing just a few of the reasons for this experience.
Firstly pro-euthanasia groups are admirably persistent. Secondly, these groups are conscious of the power of ethical language—and they subtly fix and “neutralize” the terms and phrases of the debate. This language is often quickly absorbed by opinion makers, and it corners those supporting the traditions and practices of “care” into a reactionary position.
A third factor is, as Professor Margaret Somerville has observed at different times, a type of “mass-minded” liberal “individualism”. This cultural disposition often determines the way ethical news is reported and interpreted, so that any good news from a culture-of-life perspective is seen as a short-lived and retrograde resistance soon to be crushed by “progress”. At other times, such good news is scarcely reported at all.
An example of “persistence” and endless ethical linguistic adjustment can be seen in the on-line message by the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (SAVES), a day after the close defeat (22-20) of yet another South Australian euthanasia bill moved by the independent, Bob Such. SAVES warns: “voluntary euthanasia bills will be returning in force in the SA Parliament soon. They will continue to haunt parliament until the issue is dealt with…”. Also more alarmingly, since the Bill was defeated as a part of a “conscience vote”, SAVES is now committing itself to attack the role of conscience in parliament. In its most recent newsletter, SAVES claims that: “‘conscience’ votes undermine the separation of religion and politics as a defining principle of secular and liberal democracies.” Notice how “conscience” is now no longer a faculty of moral freedom, but is portrayed as the refuge of “religious” conspirators and scoundrels.
Another subtle “shift” in law-reform strategy can be seen in the plans to mount another private members’ bill for euthanasia in Tasmania.
The proposal this time will come from a partnership in “choice in dying” (notice the wording) between Premier Lara Giddings and Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim. In 2009, a Greens-only euthanasia bill was defeated in Tasmania. This time, the sponsors will target not a specifically “voluntary euthanasia” bill but one drafted within an “assisted-dying framework”. This immediately “blurs” the complex end-of-life distinctions for many people.
More cleverly still, the wording of the bill will be deployed only AFTER a selected “groups” have been asked not what they think voluntary euthanasia is but how “assisting death” should be achieved. One expects that such “encouraged discussion” will be like marketing focus-groups in which people will give answers to “loaded questions”. Then, Mr McKim says: "We will then draft and table legislation that is appropriate for Tasmania, which gives it the best chance of passing the Parliament.”
Now for some positive news…
While the above important local stories received only slight notice in the media, there have been at least three notable developments in Europe against the widening acceptance of euthanasia which received almost no attention in the Australian media. It is interesting that the following statements have not been made from an abstract “position from nowhere” but rather from medical professionals considering the concrete reality of “good” and “committed” practice within the reality of society’s inequalities and inbalances.
a) BMA remains opposed to assisted suicide and finds some new voices.
In the final days of June this year, a very important ethical debate took place within the British Medical Association (BMA). On the 27th June, British doctors were asked by an active and highly placed minority of pro-euthanasia physicians (many of them retired) to vote in favour of “studied neutrality” on the matter of “assisted dying”. They voted decisively against it.
Motion 332 urged that the Association accept that it:
“i) believes that assisted dying is a matter for society and not for the medical profession;
ii) believes that the BMA should adopt a neutral position on change in the law on assisted dying.”
This motion was phrased not as a positive vote “for” euthanasia but a neutral and laissez-faire position towards “assisted dying”. Far from being “neutral”, the campaign was led by a minority of medical figures associated with the “Dying with Dignity” group (once more overtly known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) heavily funded by the late-popular writer Sir Terry Pratchett and another body called the Secular Medical Forum—an overtly anti-religious group of doctors which “believes that ‘assisted dying’ with adequate safeguards for terminally ill, competent adults, should be introduced in the UK as soon as possible.”
Opponents to the motion were well organized and unified. They argued that the BMA was not neutral on a whole range of issues which affected the safety and health of British patients including torture, tobacco and the future of the National Health Service so how could it justify “neutrality” about a practice that would change the entire ethos of medicine, medical practices and the safety of vulnerable people.
These opponents also recognised the importance of word play in the euthanasia debate: “The motion simply talks about ‘assisted dying’, a term which is variously defined and which has no meaning in law. So it is not at all clear what doctors would actually be signing up to be neutral on. Does it include assisted suicide or euthanasia or both, and for which categories of patients?”
The BMA debate was also assisted by the stunningly plain speaking remarks by the president of the Royal College of General Practitioners in the UK, Iona Heath. She wrote in the May 29th edition of the BMJ (the former British Medical Journal) that society should take account of the fact that medicine and law is needed for the most vulnerable and the least articulate members—not merely celebrity academics such as those leading the “Dying with Dignity” campaigns. Furthermore, she warned that the more idealistic campaigners for “assisted dying” were “rosy-eyed and naïve” since they did not appear to have an imagination to envisage how “assisted dying” would benefit “less than benign” governments and individuals.
Dr Heath concluded: “One of the huge challenges of human life is to find ways of living a meaningful life within the limits of a finite lifespan that will always involve loss of love and the inevitability of grief. Doctors have a regrettable tendency to ignore this reality and to persist in active and invasive treatment beyond the point at which it has become futile and even cruel.”
b) German Medical Association condemns euthanasia
In May, a formal apology was made by the German Medical Association (GMA) for its past involvement in the experimentation on concentration camp inmates and in the Nazi’s forced eugenic sterilization and euthanasia campaigns.
Far from claiming “studied neutrality” or indifference, the Association stated: “these crimes were not the actions of individual doctors but involved leading members of the medical community.” Such lessons should stand as a warning for the present and future community of medical practitioners.
While this part of the GMA’s convention received some mainstream media attention, what was not acknowledged was that the same peak medical body also resolved to not only to oppose euthanasia on principle but to support bans of all forms of euthanasia, and to support the German government’s campaign to ban the sort of commercialisation of assisted suicide that was taking place across the border in Switzerland.
c) Danish Medical Association President speaks out
Although euthanasia debates are typically associated with the sort of liberal arguments for which Scandinavia is renowned, until this year the Danish parliament has unanimously opposed legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia. Even though the debate has been reintroduced into the Danish parliament this year, doctors and nurses are expressing their concerns about the vulnerable and about the integrity of the professions.
Once again, far from being neutral, the chairman of the Danish Medical Association’s ethics committee, Dr Poul Jaszczak was outspoken in his statements recently: “It’s never been a doctor’s role to take people’s lives. I would fear that doctors would become hangmen, which would be utterly at odds with what a doctor expects his role to be.” Another leading Danish doctor asked: “Why doctors though? They are not trained to kill. They’re trained to keep people alive. It goes against the very essence of being a doctor.”