The right to life has been recognised as a fundamental human right – but what about the right to death?
“The law wouldn’t let a dog suffer the agony I’m going through before an inevitable death. It would be put down. Yet under the law, my life is worth less than a dog’s.”
These are the words of Angelique Flowers, who in 2008 at the age of 31 died a slow and painful death of what she had feared most – a total bowel obstruction.
This ‘softly spoken’ Melbourne writer spent her final hours vomiting the contents of her bowels and was robbed of the dignifying death she had yearned for.
“The peaceful ending wasn’t there,” described her brother Damien, “how can that be right? How can society believe that terminal patients should be put through awful agonising deaths?
“Angelique wasn’t afraid of dying; it was more the way she was going to die that she feared.”
Today, euthanasia is one of the most highly controversial debates on Australian soil. Many arguments have been formed in favour and against legalising euthanasia.
Some argue that the killing of an innocent human being will always be morally wrong and legalising it may cause a ‘slippery slope’, whilst others argue that people should be able to make their own decisions regarding their death if they are not living their life to the fullest extent.
Author Michael Manning explains originally the term euthanasia meant ‘good death’ and never carried any negative connotations. However in today’s society, this definition has taken a turn.
Today, euthanasia has now come to mean ‘mercy killing’ and refers to the act of painlessly killing a patient who suffers from a terminal illness.
Euthanasia advocate, Derek Humphry argues: ‘while it is true that we have no control over our births, at least we ought to have control over our deaths. How can we claim to be free people if someone else’s morals and standards govern the way we die?’
Humphry’s argument poses an interesting question: we all have the right to live, but should we have the right to die?
Some say yes, however in the book Ethics: Voluntary Euthanasia, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians argue:
Allowing some people the choice of death will deprive others of the choice to stay alive; some incurably or terminally ill people, who would like to continue living in a state which would be unacceptable to others, will be unable to resist the subtle pressure of family and friends who give ‘consent’ to the ending of their ‘worthless’ lives.
Brianna Leach who also opposes the legalisation of euthanasia in Australia agrees with this and explains, “I think that it introduces a conflict of interest for medical practitioners who will be expected to execute it, and will change the ethos of the health system from preserving life to providing death.”
It’s almost impossible to tell whether this would be the case, but this is one of the biggest concerns about legalising euthanasia.
Would pressure be put on the medical system and would it cause a diminution of care as a result?
What kind of message would this send to patients about their worth – especially if they are living with a lifelong illness that may inevitably result in death?
A survey which asked: ‘should euthanasia be legalised in Australia?’ was conducted on 60 people from the ages of 15 to 65.
The results showed a staggering response of 56 in favour of and 4 opposing the legalisation of euthanasia in Australia.
Assuming this survey result represents the general feeling of the Australian public, and with such an overwhelming positive response, why hasn’t euthanasia become legalised?
Last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard commented on this issue explaining: “it is not the intention of the Australian government to bring to the parliament any legislation dealing with voluntary euthanasia” and has previously said: “I find it almost impossible to conceptualise how there could be appropriate steps and safeguards. So I’m … conflicted on it in that sense.”
Queensland University of Technology Lecturer Andrew McGee who is a part of the Health Law Research Program proposed possible safe guards that would help regulate euthanasia in Australia if it ever became legalised.
McGee suggested a legislation that is highly regulated and outlined in great detail.
“The difficulty with the proposal is to come up with legislation that will provide sufficient safeguards without making the legislation unworkable by giving medical practitioners too many hoops to jump through before they can lawfully euthanise someone,” McGee explained.
However, McGee raised the concern that, “if voluntary euthanasia is made lawful, then governments in the future might make non-voluntary euthanasia lawful too, in times of sever economic recession, because it’s much easier to expand the cases where euthanasia would be lawful, than it is to make euthanasia lawful in the first place.”
Thomas Bartsch a survey participant who opposed the legalisation explained, “we don’t know how far the act can go after it has been passed, people are only thinking short term about the issue. In 20 years time how will this law alter again? It could potentially threaten your life, or the lives of others … In the end euthanasia tragically only takes away life, I see no benefit in that for anyone.”
Euthanasia was not an option for Angelique Flowers, and is not an option for many other Australians who are suffering from terminal illnesses today.
Euthanasia is not, and will never be a simple topic and will continue to be a complex issue in both Australian politics and ethics.
Although there are many arguments that support the legalisation of euthanasia in Australia, there also lies far too many negative implications of legalising something that affects the lives of so many.
Should we, or those around us have the right to choose our time of death?