This week, the Senate is considering giving a blank cheque to both the ACT and Northern Territory to introduce laws that promote suicide as an end of life option. Despite this literally being a matter of life or death, it has failed to garner much public attention and has slipped under the radar of many.
While proponents are claiming that this bill is all about ‘Territories’ rights’, nothing could be further from the truth. Should this Bill pass, both the Northern Territory and ACT governments have indicated that they will move to introduce regimes to legally permit suicide through euthanasia – which means this important vote will decide whether state-sanctioned suicide by euthanasia should be allowed.
While I recognise the hurt and heartache that can come from having a family member or close friend diagnosed with a terminal illness and a desire from some, from a place of compassion, to permit options to legally end their lives early would have widespread consequences and set a dangerous precedent and, above all, would see the state devalue the worthiness of human life.
The fact that the both John Howard and Paul Keating are of a similar mind on this radical social change in itself demonstrates and highlights that opposition to such a proposal is not limited to a particular sect of the Australian populace.
My principal concern about assisted suicide is the cultural change that would come from the state sanctioning and supporting suicide. Regrettably in Australia today, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young Australians – many of whom are suffering from deep forms of depression where they can see no other way out. Rightly, Australian governments and mental health organisations have made a significant investment in sending a clear message to all young Australians that suicide is never the solution and should not be contemplated. I am seriously concerned that should such a change in law be progressed, it would undermine and undo much of this good and important work. Any message from the state that there are circumstances where suicide is a valid or reasonable option could have catastrophic circumstances particularly for many young people.
The limited international experience demonstrates that this is a clear consequence of law change in this regard. For example, in Oregon, the suicide rate is 42 per cent higher than the national average and has been on the steady incline since the year 2000.
Further, the risk is far too great of an individual who is incorrectly diagnosed who decides to take their own life. If even one person were to take their own life in circumstances where they could have gone on to live a long and productive life, that is one too many and worse still, the permanency of taking one’s own life means we can never know.
Turning to the medical community, such legislation would place medical professionals in a near-impossible position and force them to break the Hippocratic Oath. It would effectively create two classes of patient care, the first those whose lives we honour and support and the second, those whom we deem unworthy of living. This is a threshold that once crossed, is impossible to go back.
Surveys from the membership of the Australian Medical Association have found that doctors who regularly deliver end-of-life care to patients are among those that have the greatest opposition to assisted suicide.
For the state to say in law that there are some people whose lives we value and support and others that we believe are better off dead is a horrific and disturbing notion. Normalising any form of suicide changes our view of death and presents an accepted alternative to physical and possibly even mental pain. On that basis, any rational assessment would conclude that the risks of law change are far too great.
While a keen federalist, there is a fundamental difference between states and territories that must be recognised. While states are given specific responsibilities under the constitution, territories are provided self-governance at the gift of the Commonwealth and have always had different responsibilities to states. Given the different nature of the territories, it is perfectly consistent for the Commonwealth to continue to hold certain responsibilities, including relating to life. Such a change in the law, which would see the ACT be one of the very few jurisdictions in the world, to permit such a practise, would be highly undesirable.
I for one am hopeful that the Senate will reject the Bill that is up for debate in coming days.
Josh Manuatu is on Twitter @JoshManuatu
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