Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Euthanasia

Cloudy Day Thoughts

A rainy, dark Sunday afternoon seems a perfect time to make a post and point I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Euthanasia should be legal.

Actually i’ll go further, the very fact that it is not, is the ultimate constraint on freedom in the modern world. More than the restriction of drugs, the prohibition of homosexuals from marriage, or the tax paid by each of us. By making Euthanasia illegal, we are day after day agreeing to the proposition that Government has the right to control our bodies even as we exit this world. It is morally no different to giving government the right to choose when and how each of us are born, and must be removed from our laws and protected in our constitution.

The damage which this law does daily can be no better seen than through a recent court case:

In a landmark decision, Western Australia’s chief judge Wayne Martin said the Brightwater Care Group would not be criminally responsible if it stopped feeding and hydrating severely paralysed Christian Rossiter, 49. Martin said Rossiter had the right to direct his own treatment, and that food and water “should not be administered against his wishes”.The ruling sets a legal precedent in Australia, where assisting someone to take their own life is a crime punishable by life in prison in some states

The judge found Rossiter was not terminally ill or dying and had the mental capacity to make an informed decision about stopping his treatment. Martin ordered that medical staff fully explain to Rossiter the consequences of ceasing nutrition and hydration through a tube into his stomach. In a statement read to the court Friday, the former stockbroker and outdoor adventurer said he was unable to undertake the most basic of human functions. “I am unable to blow my nose,” he said. “I am unable to wipe the tears from my eyes.”He made a public plea last week to be allowed to end his suffering, which he described as a “living hell”.

“I’m Christian Rossiter and I’d like to die. I am a prisoner in my own body. I can’t move,” he told reporters.

So long as Euthanasia is illegal we are as a society accepting the jail of the human body, as appropriate for the enslavement of the human spirit. We punish and decry those who act to imprison a fellow member of society, be it their family members or a random stranger. But when an individuals own body becomes that coffin, far more effective and painfully than anything man could think up, we witness governments and ‘moral’ societies lining up around the world to demand that individual endures and suffers as long as is physically possible. When nature makes the body a prison, we have somehow come to see it as moral to become its prison guards.

Rossiter’s case captures the horns of the dilemma for a society which grants the individual only partial authority over their body. We already accept that individuals can reject medical treatment. Your doctor can’t force you to take your flu tablets, your dentist can’t fill that cavity without your consent, no one can stop teenager boys breaking their arms by riding skateboards, and for those with religious objections (such as Jehovah Witnesses with Blood Transfusions) we will let people choose their type of treatment. Rossiter won on similar grounds, he is able to choose to reject a certain treatment (forced feeding) but is not allowed to choose an alternative treatment (assisted suicide).

And so he will starve to death. Slowly, painfully and with the tools for his desired release within meters of him but untouchable due to the law.

Death is of course a scary thing, and addressing the fear that Euthanasia will be used in a utilitarian or bureaucratic means to simply end the life of the disabled or elderly is central to changing the law. In the USA at the moment, critical health care reform is being dragged down with the suggestion (courtesy of the now unemployed Sarah Palin) that unproductive, disabled, poor or elderly members of society would face ‘death panels’ a claim which even the cowardly lion of the NYT has called ‘false’. That such an idea could gain leverage whilst plainly unrelated to the actual legislation on the table demonstrates the widespread social concerns and challenges that overcoming this great bondage on individuals would require in the real fight. The great unspoken fear is of course the return of society and government having control over life in the practice eugenics, as was seen in western society as recently as the 1920’s, and practiced under the Nazis regime (China and India’s overwhelmingly male next generation also suggests similar practices at work). And yet if we really were incapable of avoiding the past’s crimes, then no society at all would be possible. All democracy would become tyranny, all authority abused, all prejudices encouraged, all freedom revoked. And yet whilst relapse is always possible, that is plainly not the experience of human kind. Over the last 400 years much of humanity has come to fall within the bounds of the rule of law, directed at the protection of the individual, with the rest eager to catch up. In such tight confines and with oversight, what is proposed is as far from the social control of totalitarian regimes as is possible. For euthanasia is worthy only, i repeat only as a means of freeing the individual within that most private of private spheres: their own body. Indeed it is more correctly our current tortured half-way house that seems to accept the idea of society choosing how and when individuals die. Legal Euthanasia is not the beginnings of eugenics, but rather the final refutation of it and its barbarous principle of granting society and government authority for that which it does not and can never have: the individuals own body.

Others run the other way, suggest this is a question of nature’s authority and not to be interfered with. These same people however likely see nothing but god’s will and love at work in the great acts of nurses, doctors and medicine to fight back against death, to extend our lives, and enhance the quality of our time on this planet. These people are not hypocrits, but rather in their fear of the unknown they have tried to invest in an amoral environment virtues of good or ill. God may be loving, but bacteria is not moral, nor is the lightening strike or flash flood. Nature has no care for our life or death. Only human beings who have consciousness of others, and a sense of morality can recognize the issues. From the importance of life to the morality of a dignified death. Instead of championing this moral demand, those of this view seek to outsource their responsibility.

In light of this fear, Politicians, the so called leaders of our communities have also hastily retreated from addressing the issue. In 1997 the Northern Territory government passed legislation allowing for Euthanasia, but it was soon repealed by the Federal Government under a Private Members bill of Kevin Andrews. Half-hearted moves were made also here in the ACT, and in 2008 with new leadership of both major parties in place, Bob Brown announced the Greens would again be pushing to over-turn Commonwealth legislation in this area. However much as on the issues of drug prohibition and marriage equality, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown no willingness to move or even listen to argument on changes in these areas. Yet the polls seem to indicate that the vast majority of Australia’s support the individual having their control, with only some minorities such as Catholics or Aborigines rejecting the law on religious grounds. Indeed we are held by our politicians to be so frightened and incapable of discussing this that they lined up in 2005 to make it illegal to even discuss methods of suicide online.

Whilst Rossiter’s death (like that of Terry Schiavo in the USA several years back) is public, the elderly and infirm have been taking their own lives in indignity and humiliation for many many years. Once proud members of the ‘greatest generation’ have been found with plastic bags on their head, stomach’s full of pills, or at the bottom of staircases. Having sacrificed so much, having seen so much, having given all the strength they ever had, the government today stands between them and final control over the manner and timing of their final exit. And so, hiding from family members and the law they take their own life, becoming in their final act criminals of the state. Their crime is to want to have some control, some independence and dignity.

There are challenges to be overcome and safeguards to be put in place. Full legislation would require at least a few years open public discussion before it is comfortably accepted. But if we are to be a free society we must remove these abhorrent laws. We must accord all adult, mentally firm members of society both the freedom and the dignity to have final say over the way in which they pass into death. Anything less is to condemn our fellow citizens to pain and humiliation for an issue which we have no right as a society to interfere with. Just as human society today recognizes it wrong for one individual to take the life of another, we will one day come to recognize it wrong to give society control over the life of each one of us as to the time and manner of our passing.