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Misunderstandings about euthanasia

Earlier this year John Elliott flew from Sydney to Zurich, where a Swiss euthanasia organisation helped him to commit suicide.

He was 79 years old and was suffering from terminal bone cancer. He was accompanied on his journey by a euthanasia campaigner, Dr Philip Nitschke, and a reporter from The Age newspaper, James Burton, thereby turning his death into propaganda for the cause of euthanasia. “I am sharing my story,” he wrote in a statement to The Age, “to help our politicians understand why people must be allowed control and responsibility in dying, just like they do in living.”

A few days after John Elliott’s death, Australian Greens senator Bob Brown announced that he would introduce a private member’s bill in the Senate to legalise euthanasia. “It’s inevitable that we will get legislation like this up,” Senator Brown said.

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott expressed opposition to any attempt to make euthanasia legal. “If euthanasia were legalised there’s a whole range of old people who would suddenly be at risk of being bumped off,” Mr Abbott told The Age. He added that “because we’re human we hate to see suffering … but the fact is that euthanasia is an incredibly big step beyond anything our culture and civilisation has ever contemplated and it opens up a whole range of scary possibilities.”

Mr Abbott is right when he says that “because we’re human we hate to see suffering”. Indeed, the desire to alleviate suffering is the primary reason most people want euthanasia legalised. And yet many people who claim to support euthanasia are quite confused about what it actually involves. This became clear to me one day as I listened to a radio talkback show and heard the moving stories of two men who called, they said, to add their voices to those who were calling for the legalisation of euthanasia.

The first man related how his elderly mother had suffered during the final stages of cancer. On one occasion he asked a nurse to do something to relieve his mother’s pain, only to be told that his mother was not due for her next morphine injection for another half-hour. He became angry and insisted that she be given a painkiller immediately. After this confrontation, he consulted with the doctors about the management of his mother’s pain. They were reluctant to administer additional morphine for fear of shortening her life. But eventually they agreed to allow larger and more frequent doses. After this, his mother lived several more months, largely free from pain.

The second man recounted how his twenty-year-old daughter had contracted a fatal brain tumour. Chemotherapy did more harm than good and she lapsed into a coma. The medication she was given while in the coma bloated her body. The pressure from the tumour forced one of her eyes from its socket. But the doctors kept her alive by keeping her hooked up to various life support systems, including an artificial respirator. The man begged the doctors to disconnect the respirator, but they refused. As his daughter’s condition became more grotesque, he became more enraged. When the doctors eventually agreed to turn off the respirator, the young woman died within minutes.

Who could remain unmoved by the heart-rending stories of these two men? Who could deny the correctness of their requests concerning their loved ones? Surely, what they endured was wrong and what they wanted was right!

But do these men’s stories illustrate the need for euthanasia? Contrary to the opinions of the men themselves, they do not. Rather, they illustrate a widespread misunderstanding about what euthanasia really is.

Euthanasia involves premeditated killing—deliberate killing—for supposed compassionate reasons. In its most usual form, it involves injecting chemicals into a person’s veins in order to kill him or her.

If the men who phoned the talkback show had been clear on this, they would not have expressed support for euthanasia. For neither one had requested a lethal injection for his loved one.

The son did not ask the doctors to kill his elderly mother. He asked them to end her pain. He accepted the risk that her life might be shortened as a result, but he considered it a risk worth taking. Neither he nor the doctors had any intention of killing his mother by increasing her dosage of morphine. Their sole intention was to make her comfortable during the last days of her life. So then, what this man wanted was not euthanasia but adequate pain relief. He wanted appropriate palliative care.

As for the father, he did not ask the doctors to kill his young daughter. He asked them to disconnect her life-support equipment. He accepted the inevitability of her death, and was not prepared to allow her life to be prolonged indefinitely by artificial means. He knew the time had come to let go. He asked the doctors to stop playing God and to allow “nature” to take its course. So then, what he wanted was not euthanasia but an end to useless, degrading treatment.

Euthanasia involves purposely killing a person by lethal injection. It should not be confused with the use of painkillers that may inadvertently shorten a patient’s life. The unintentional hastening of death cannot be equated with the intentional taking of life.

Furthermore, euthanasia should not be confused with the discontinuation of treatment. A decision to shorten life is quite different from a decision not to prolong life. The injection of a lethal chemical is not the same as the withdrawal of a futile treatment.

It is true that there are grey areas so far as the discontinuation of treatment is concerned. Some decisions may be difficult, and open to question. But there are no grey areas, no uncertainties, so far as euthanasia is concerned. It is the deliberate dealing out of death and it is uniformly black.

The experiences of the two men on talkback radio do not support euthanasia. But they do support the need for better palliative care and a reappraisal of the notion that life must be prolonged at any cost.

From a Christian perspective, to care for the dying is a noble thing, and to accept their death is a necessary thing, but to induce their death is an evil thing.

Human beings are incalculably precious, because God created us in his image for eternal companionship with himself. When we turned away from him in rebellion and indifference, God demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son, Jesus, to die for us. By his death, Jesus made amends to God for our wrongs and opened the way for those who trust in him to have eternal life. Because God has invested us with immeasurable value, we are not at liberty to “put down” humans as if they were merely animals. We have an obligation to hold human life sacred.

One way to uphold the sanctity of human life is to spell out exactly what euthanasia is and is not. For a mistaken understanding of euthanasia gives rise to a mistaken support for euthanasia. When we clear up the misunderstandings, we dry up the support.

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