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We all deserve the choice of a voluntary assisted death

28 May 2016 No Comment

Given that for most people voluntary assisted dying is eminently sensible, it is still surprisingly difficult to have a reasoned debate about end-of-life choices.

As a patron of Britain’s ‘Dignity in Dying’ campaign, Sir Terence English reports: “During my life as a surgeon I have come across mentally competent, terminally ill patients who would have welcomed the option of being able to choose the timing and circumstances of their death. I believe the legislation of assisted dying is important for those who, like me, wish to have this degree of control over their final days.”

Why would anybody disagree?

In fact, voluntary assisted dying is increasingly appealing to many people as they get older, especially those concerned about excessive suffering and extreme loss of dignity. Even though it may be a pity he didn’t speak up sooner, Bob Hawke is the latest eminent older Australian to publicly emphasise what he termed the absurdity of opposing the idea.

The Western world now has extensive practical experience of the operation of legal assisted dying. Reputable independent authorities have studied the concern that the vulnerable might be abused and have concluded that the safeguards can and do work.

Internationally we have witnessed much recent progress in introducing voluntary assisted dying laws. California’s new End of Life Options law will take effect on June 9, and last month the Canadian Prime Minister introduced a draft law that should be passed by the end of June.

A major source of opposition to voluntary assisted dying is the Catholic Church and other religious hierarchies. “Voluntary” and “choice” are concepts that churches like to reserve for their autocracies but not apply to individuals. They demand control , not only over their memberships but over the rest of us as well.

It required lengthy, hard-fought campaigns to decriminalise homosexuality, suicide and abortion, and to provide ready access to contraception and sex education.

In Australia, as elsewhere, minority ecclesiastical autocracies still remain powerful in their fight against same-sex marriage and voluntary assisted dying.

Yet more than 70 per cent of Catholics, Anglicans and other church-goers in Australia support voluntary assisted dying.

Unfortunately, the fact is that the church hierarchies still find fertile ground among our cautious political elites who all too frequently are prepared to ignore the views of the majority of voters and maintain the status quo of a federal parliament that still starts its day in Christian prayer.

Fearful of a largely conservative media, our politicians are easy prey for coalitions of church interest groups, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, that continue to protect the tax-free status and other benefits of the religious institutions they represent.

The Tasmanian director of the ACL recently wrote: “Regarding euthanasia: Christians believe humans are made in God’s image and therefore have inherent value and dignity. Euthanasia challenges this.” Why should the fact that we look like God mean that voluntary assisted dying is not a good idea? Does he mean that while there is any life, no matter how much suffering is involved, that life has absolute value and therefore should not be ended quickly and painlessly?

The reality is that in mid-2016 there is overwhelming support in Australia for a change in the law to allow voluntary assisted dying. This support reflects the individual consciences and values of Australians who do not seek to impose their views on others but simply wish to have their right to choose how to die respected under Australian law. Believers and non-believers alike, they demand to live in an Australia that is not shackled by church law.

Yet it is only rarely that the dogmatic religious argue against assisted dying solely on the basis of their faith. Much more common is to argue that evidence from places where voluntary assisted dying laws exist shows dreadful consequences. We might expect that rational debate would over time expose the half-truths. Sadly, this has not yet happened. and it makes me wonder if there is any chance of it happening soon, if ever.

What is needed now is for all political parties to extend freedom to the dying. But merely allowing a conscience vote on voluntary assisted dying is not enough: historically, our parliamentarians do not vote according to their conscience.

As it happens, as party policy the Australian Sex Party and the Greens both support voluntary assisted dying. It would be heartening if the major parties also did the same.

But although this is unlikely, I am hopeful of a positive outcome when the report of the Victorian parliamentary committee on dying with dignity is soon released.

The reality is that if the law is to be changed, as individual citizens, and as members of groups supporting “dying with dignity”, we need to actively lobby for the right to make end-of-life choices for ourselves.

Here, the personal is indeed political. And since Alan Jones recently interviewed me I have received a shoal of letters, texts, and email from people sharing their personal stories. They all want the laws changed so that in future they and their loved ones can die with dignity.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, and the Australian Sex Party’s lead Senate candidate in NSW.

The Age, May 28, 2016.

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