The story of euthanasia in Australia could be dubbed a tale of two Andrews, the good one and the not so good one. It is 20 years since the Private Member’s Bill introduced by the good Andrews, Kevin Andrews, knocked out the physician-assisted euthanasia legislated in the Northern Territory and, by default, the rest of Australia because of euthanasia tourism. Two of the first four candidates for euthanasia were women from South Australia and New South Wales respectively.
It was my privilege to have a back-room role in the anti-euthanasia campaign, assisting the then Liberal backbencher, briefing media from all over the world, putting out media releases and preparing speeches. The phone rang off the hook (or would have had we not answered it) and the media requests were non-stop, everyone from Time magazine and the BBC to the local media.
The figures for the percentage of people in favour of euthanasia (like those for capital punishment which still secures a majority) would gladden the heart of any tin-pot tyrant at between 66 per cent and 85 per cent. Who wouldn’t want to vote for ‘dying with dignity’? ‘Death by lethal injection’ doesn’t have the same catchy ring. Euphemisms are straight out of the Left’s playbook of dirty tricks. It is like being for the Clean Energy Target. You wouldn’t vote for the ‘Dirty Energy Target’ but call it the ‘Exorbitant Cost of Energy Target’ and yeses turn into noes like the women in the Dove ad morphed from blonde to brunette and black to white and back again to illustrate diversity in a multi-racial society (rather than racial discrimination as the Left would have it).
It should have been impossible to win the argument on the need to prevent euthanasia, also known as physician-assisted suicide, precisely because it seemed a no-brainer – die in pain or not die in pain. As Mark Twain wrote, ‘Falsehood flies and truth comes limping after.’ In every case, the push for euthanasia has come from individuals trying to expiate for an experience with a dying parent. The case for euthanasia is put by its proponents as if palliative care does not exist.
Professor Peter Ravenscroft, one of the founding fathers of palliative care in this country, who appeared before the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee in early 1997 to consider the Euthanasia Laws Bill was at pains to point out that there is a wealth of difference between being given treatment by a GP not used to palliative care and being given palliative care by a professional palliative care team who treat thousands of people yearly. He suggested that some doctors could be arrogant in overestimating their expertise in this context.
I had personal experience of this sort of arrogance when a 70 something doctor told my brothers and myself that our mother had already had her four score years and ten and counselled against giving any proactive treatment. Had euthanasia been a regular antidote to old age, it would have been less likely that we had any choice in the matter. Our mother was a fighter who would never have chosen to give up and we had two more years with her and she with us.
The message from our palliative care doctors was this – euthanasia gives a physician a licence to bury his mistakes. The pro-euthanasia advocates like to say that regulating euthanasia will help to stop what they characterise as de facto euthanasia – the progressive use of morphine at the end of life. The world’s worst mass murderer was a popular general practitioner called Harold Shipman practising in northern England whose victims were thought to be around 250 patients but could be hundreds more, 80 per cent of whom were elderly women (and some not so elderly). The deaths went unremarked until a strange bequest to Dr Shipman caused an insurance company to start investigating. Would requiring more paper work have stopped Shipman, especially given his clearly charismatic influence over his patients?
Truth limps a long way behind because it is always so much more complex and nuanced than the convenient lie. Even popular support for euthanasia is not quite what it seems. The findings of focus groups for our campaign showed that people tended to be supportive of euthanasia not for themselves but for other people which puts a different complexion on it altogether.
Our ‘First Australians’ were not in favour at all, suspecting that they would be at the front of the queue if the hospital menu included lethal injection. After the legalisation of euthanasia in the Northern Territory, medical staff had taken to telling the aboriginal community that euthanasia was only available in Darwin so that they would not refuse medical treatment for fear of an unwanted jab into the ultimate Dreamtime. Nor was this just baseless fantasy. A British jurists’ report around the time showed that there had been close to 1,000 involuntary deaths in the Netherlands where euthanasia was allowed. When the drugs for euthanasia cost just $30 at the time of the Senate hearing and palliative care cost $10,000 to $20,000, euthanasia was always going to be the most economically rational measure and a temptation for any cash-strapped state. The journey of a group of elders from Arnhem Land to support our campaign against euthanasia and present a peace stick to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs on the forecourt of Parliament House was, for me, a high point of the campaign.
In a recent documentary on the Nazi occupation of Jersey, the narrator commented that the occupation made the good people even better and the bad people worse than usual. The nadir of the anti-euthanasia campaign was the ambush of one of our media conferences at which Rod Dent, the son of the first person to be euthanased in Australia, Bob Dent, spoke against euthanasia. A Fairfax journalist had managed, in some devious way I can no longer remember, to discover that our star performer on the night had once – cue shock horror – said he would like to seek Liberal preselection. How then, goes this bizarre form of Canberra Gallery logic, could one believe anything he said?
The other usual media suspects, the leftie luvvies of the ABC, ‘exposed’ me for writing an opinion editorial for News Limited in my own name on the disproportionate number of women (71 per cent) who had been assisted to die by America’s Dr Death, Jack Kevorkian, later jailed for second degree murder. According to the ABC, as a staffer to Kevin Andrews I could only be a quisling parroting the master rather than someone who had written often in the media about women’s issues over the years. My point was that women are trained to believe that they should serve the family, making them anxious to avoid becoming a burden on others. This, a female Labor senator claimed in a speech in the Parliament was an insult to women as she said I was saying women were too stupid to think for themselves.
Proving that the ‘slippery slope’ scoffed at by proponents was no prophecy of the future, 60 per cent of Kevorkian’s victims did not have a terminal disease and autopsies showed some had no disease at all. Despite this, Kevorkian was treated as a great humanitarian and given public speaking engagements on his release from prison. Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes were rightly proud when Dr Nitschke admitted on camera that he would not be against assisting in the termination of the lives of people who did not have a terminal condition, a point he recently repeated. They thought it would receive a great splash in the rest of the media. The story caused not a ripple. For when the truth does not fit the lie, truth goes missing.
Apart from its principal, Kevin Andrews, who, unflappable and calm as always, maintained the momentum over many months, the triumph of the campaign against euthanasia owed everything to the calibre of the Parliament at the time and the close cooperation of the major parties. As Irish statesman Edmund Burke said in speaking of the role of a Member of Parliament, your parliamentary representative ‘owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ In the course of the campaign, I found only one constituent in support of euthanasia who was willing to even entertain the idea that there could be a non-religious, evidence-based argument against euthanasia. The majority merely spat vexation or venom. We presented the parliamentarians with a package of complex materials to consider and they did.
The best palliative care should be available to all. More resources are needed not less. The legalised euthanasia introduced in one of those acts of tremendous irony by another Andrews, Premier Daniel Andrews, in Victoria will do the reverse in allocating scarce funding to euthanasia. Yet, as the palliative care professionals told the Senate hearing on euthanasia in 1997, people who come into palliative care wanting to be euthanased feel quite differently when they are reassured by receiving proper care and comfort and no longer feel themselves a weight on their family.
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