In Euthanasia, Politics

A speech by Paul Russell at the 19th Annual Rally for Life


Paul Russell

The Catholic Bishops of Victoria in a recent letter stated:

“‘Thou shalt not kill’ is both a biblical and civil dictum and should remain so for very good reason.”

Echoed in various ways in every major religion, the principle that killing another person—unless in defence against a threat of the violent loss of one’s own life—finds expression in our laws and has done since laws ever existed.

The laws against homicide protect each of us equally and without favour. The criminal code prohibitions also rightly include sanctions against aiding, abetting or inciting anyone else to “self-killing” or suicide.

These laws are further endorsed and underpinned by international covenants on human rights which tell us that the “right to life” is “inalienable”. That is an important word that means that life can neither be given away nor taken away arbitrarily.

What does this mean?

Let’s consider Article Four of the Universal Declaration on human rights which follows on from the right to life, liberty and security of person. 

“No one shall be held in slavery or servitude”. Even if, by some strange logic, I had a desire to be a slave of another person and submitted to such slavery, the law and international covenants still prohibit such an action and provide legal penalties.

So, it can be said that even “voluntariness”—held as a defining and supposedly necessary element of euthanasia and assisted suicide—is not considered as being something that changes the nature of the act nor the attendant legal penalties.

In Germany a few years ago there was a bizarre case of cannibalism where, according to the evidence, the victim submitted willingly to being killed and then consumed. Should it be accepted that because the person “volunteered” that the offence no longer applies? That the law should be ignored or altered as a consequence?

No, this was a heinous crime.

Article 7 of the UN declaration provides that “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” That protection must exist whether we want it or not, whether we somehow need it or not and whether we are aware of it or not.

Once such protections are varied in any way such that some circumstances or some demographic of persons are treated differently, then we run the risk of the dissolution of the majesty of the law such that we enshrine a form of discrimination that the UN Covenant noted and proscribed.

The law must, must protect each and every one of us equally. Euthanasia and assisted suicide changes that; it creates a situation where that equal protection is forever changed.

There’s a wise old saying: “Whenever you remove any fence, always pause long enough to ask why it was put there in the first place.” The Criminal Code is a considerable fence indeed.

As Dutch newspaper editor, Gerbert van Loenen observed about the perilous state of his own nation: “Making euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide legal started a development we did not foresee. The old limit ‘thou shalt not kill’ was abandoned, a new limit is yet to be found.”

Why? Because it will never be enough that a limited gap is created in the fence that is the prohibition against homicide. The gap will be trampled. As Belgian ethicist, Carine Brochier observed, “it will go wider and wider.”

We will have set aside the protections of the law that involve a criminal investigation, a magistrate, a court case and an appeal and given the role of judge, jury and shall I say, executioner, over to two doctors. Any two doctors and maybe, in some cases, three.

I have no desire to denigrate the medical profession—not at all. But the processes of law as they currently stand are designed to be impartial with formalised and strict rules of evidence, of testimony and of decision making by men and women of years of training in the law. We cannot say that of our doctors.

I would no more want a doctor to make a decision about euthanasia and assisted suicide than I would want a Supreme Court judge or the police to make a decision about a medical procedure.

“But there’ll be a reporting procedure?” Sure there will. And does anyone really expect that a doctor will self-incriminate if he or she has not complied with the law?

There’s plenty of evidence from the Benelux countries that non-reporting is rife in addition to an occasional “slap-on-the-wrist” for some doctors found not to have complied with the law. At least one prominent Belgian doctor has declared publicly that he never reports his cases—and nothing is done about it.

Reporting as a safeguard—really?

And what about this idea that we should all bow to autonomy and self-determination? Really?

The Q & A program gave us an example recently of an elderly couple who said that they did not want to live in an aged care facility and would therefore take steps to end their lives. While I don’t agree with their decision, it is theirs to make.

So why do they want to involve the state in such a decision by foisting upon the entire population a regimen that would put the self-determination of others at risk? A system that would not be about their autonomy but would involve the autonomous decision of two doctors. It is the doctors who ultimately decide.

It is precisely because of the risk of third party encouragement and support and even surrogate decision making, that assisting in suicide is still a crime whilst attempting suicide has been decriminalised.

We don’t want people helping others to die!

UK Disability Activist and TV star, Liz Carr recently spoke to Victorian MPs and summarized the problems with autonomy:

If there was a non-disabled person at a railway bridge about to jump, what do we do? Do we go up to them, and go: in the name of autonomy and self-determination, you do this. If this is your choice you do it. I don’t think we do that usually. We usually stop them. We usually prevent them from doing it. We usually put in suicide prevention. We question why they’re doing it. We question their mental health. We would see it as a tragedy if it occurred.

Now if that person was impaired, was disabled on that railway bridge, would we act the same? Now you might say yes we would, but my bet is a lot of people would not act the same. They would go: if that person wants to end their life I understand why, because if I was like that I’d feel the same, and of course, because it must be difficult. Then we start to call it about choice. Then it’s different, and for me if you even see those two people as different and those two situations as different that suggests we do have an unconscious bias and discrimination.

Liz identifies a significant problem— inherent bias and discrimination; something that none of us, if we’re totally honest is immune from.

I want to close by returning to the law. Even with the lengthy and precise processes of the law, miscarriages of justice can still happen. This is one of the compelling reasons why capital punishment was removed from our laws. The risk of error was too great.

“…I feel that even the risk of getting it wrong in one case is too much. What strikes me as bizarre is that in terms of something like capital punishment we don’t have that for that same reason and that’s a much higher degree of accountability. We have an investigation, a court case, police involvement, and still there are miscarriages of justice” (Liz Carr).

And so I say no to euthanasia and assisted suicide. This is a human rights issue about the protection of people from harm and for our laws and lawmakers to uphold the human rights principles of equal protection for all.

But that is not the end of it. Those of us who oppose state sanctioned killing or state sanctioned suicide need always to keep in mind the “hard cases” that are put before us. We need to continue to agitate and to argue for better care, better services and better access. This is a contract that we must have with the people of Western Australia: that no West Australian should ever be in want of the supports and the care to live and die well.

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