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Baby boomers will not lie down and die an undignified death

9 December 2016 401 views 3 Comments

There is probably no other issue in Australian public life that can claim such increasing levels of support over the past decade. On the most recent polls, 84 per cent of ALP voters and 82 per cent of Coalition voters support it. Even 77 per cent of Catholics and 88 per cent of Anglicans want to see reform of the laws around it. These levels of support are also recorded in many modern European and Scandinavian democracies.

What we are talking about is dying with dignity, or voluntary euthanasia.

With such overwhelming levels of support, how come the matter is not being embraced by most state or federal politicians? One has to wonder why, because the subject is not one that will go away soon. The increasing number of baby boomers who are entering the latter phases of life will ensure that.

This is a generation that will not lie down and die an undignified death in the face of a religious argument or any other form of moral blackmail and persuasion. They will face suffering in a politically committed way. Remember that it was this generation that stopped the Vietnam War and, as a consequence, the suffering of a nation of peasant farmers.

It seems the reason that so many politicians are prepared to fly in the face of public opinion is because the matter is based on deeply personal and often religious values that strike at the core of people’s being — rather than their thinking and political headspace. Newspoll figures showed that for 80 per cent of respondents, voluntary euthanasia was of personal importance rather than a public issue.

Politicians who have not tasted the bitter end to a family member’s life, and especially those of a religious persuasion, often prevaricate and talk about the moment of death being “God’s will”. Or they argue that they don’t want old people being put down like dogs just because they are not useful anymore.

But these arguments pale into insignificance alongside the deep and unnecessary suffering that many people will go through in the end stages of their lives.

Just when we thought the light might have gone out for genuine reform in this area, a ray of sunshine has appeared on the horizon.

Mid next year, the Victorian government will allow Labor members a conscience vote on a bill to legalise some form of voluntary euthanasia.

This decision is in response to recommendations of the Victorian Parliament’s end of life choices committee report. The inquiry was initiated by the Australian Sex Party leader and upper house crossbencher Fiona Patten, who was also a member of the committee.

After members visited a number of countries where some form of voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted dying was legal, the committee came down with a report that encouraged the government to set up some basic ground-rules that would allow people in dire straits to make an informed decision about ending their life in a peaceful and dignified way.

It appears that some conservative members of the committee moved much more to the centre ground as a result of their research. Patten also moved towards the centre and embraced a more pragmatic and politically acceptable set of recommendations.

Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews recently experienced the death of his father from cancer. By all accounts, this harrowing experience may have changed his attitudes and opened his heart to the possibility of a new way of dealing with death and dying for all Victorians.

If, as is possible, the Victorian legislation succeeds, it is likely to open the way for the Northern Territory and the ACT (and possibly two other states) to follow suit and also pass meaningful dignity with dying legislation. If that occurs, the suffering of the nation will be greatly reduced and the national consciousness will be greatly enriched.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 39 books, including the memoir ‘My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.’

The Canberra Times, 9 December, 2016
Also The Age, The Brisbane Times. The Launceston Examiner & The Sydney Morning Herald online.


  • Richard Whitaker & J. Dalton said:

    Right to die crucial

    Dying with dignity is a matter vital to everyone.

    We will all have to leave the planet eventually and history has shown there are few pleasant ways of doing so.

    Professor Fitzgerald’s research (Canberra Times, December 9) has revealed the great majority of Australians – of all political stripes – are in favour of voluntary euthanasia, accompanied by appropriate checks and balances.

    Much of the good work in generating public discussion on the topic was initiated by Fiona Patten, leader of the Australian Sex Party, who made the issue an important part of her platform in the last election.

    The Victorian ALP’s decision to allow Labor members a conscience vote on the topic in 2017 is a step in the right direction.

    Let’s hope this step turns into a march that allows Australians who wish to do so the right to die with dignity.

    Richard Whitaker, Terrigal

    Mr Fitzgerald’s piece is full of poignancy and consideration, but we cannot condone the deliberate killing of another human being, either by themselves or an agent on their request.

    Lest it be thought I have no personal contact with the issues, my family experienced the excruciating death of my father and we all felt it was truly horrible. I spent a lengthy period employed in the coroner’s court, which led me to believe death, families and money can be a combination that causes utterly disgusting human behaviour.

    Sometimes I wonder if the excruciating pain is actually experienced by loved ones’ witnessing the seemingly destructive end of their relationship with a loved one.

    It’s absolutely true many do suffer very painful deaths, but that is surely a call for better palliative care than an explicit decision to support the end of someone’s life.

    No amount of safeguards can overcome the tendency of some to seek a benefit from someone’s death.

    J. Dalton, O’Connor

    The Canberra Times, December 12 2016.

  • Richard Mills said:

    Ross Fitzgerald asks why (CT December 9) politicians do not hasten to embrace a dying with dignity law, when an overwhelming majority of the voters want the legal right to choose medical help to die if they are suffering unbearably from a terminal illness. A very good question.

    It might be because of religious beliefs, but no one would be forced to use the legislation. Nevertheless, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church decrees you should not have a choice, because it considers voluntary euthanasia a sin.

    So it might be that politicians simply do not want a public fight with a very vocal opponent on an issue they do not see as a vote-changer.

    It might be because of fears the vulnerable will be abused.

    Such fears are unwarranted. A Victorian parliamentary committee recently reported “the evidence is conclusive that assisted dying can be provided in a way that guards against abuse and protects the vulnerable in a way that unlawful and unregulated assisted dying does not”.

    Professor Fitzgerald should take heart. The tide of history is on his side.

    Richard Mills, Leura

    The Canberra Times, December 13, 2016

  • Michael O'Brien said:

    Drawing a line

    Further to Richard Mills (Letters, December 13), isn’t it about time we adopted a strictly secular approach to the issue of euthanasia? The Catholic Church and many other Christian institutions regards voluntary euthanasia as a sin. When I was a child, it was a sin punishable by eternal damnation. I understand that today such draconian sanctions no longer apply.

    Does that mean that the persons who did commit these sins in the old days, and who have been suffering the hell-fires ever since, have now been released from those sulphurous climes?

    Leaving those principles aside, what right does any church have to say to me that what I am doing is a sin? I do not believe in sin – I believe in the rule of law and its jurisprudential foundations – based on humanitarian, as opposed to religious, concepts. Please do not tell me that any “God”, deemed to hold sway in this vast Universe, would order that a terminally person should continue to suffer unbearable pain. Even if I were to believe in such a deity, I could not believe that he or she would be so cruel.

    So leave the law making to the law-makers and the religious beliefs to the religious believers, I say – stop confusing the two, as they have been so confused since the beginning of time.

    Michael O’Brien, Newtown, NSW

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