Today, we woke up in a world fundamentally different than the one we went to rest in. It happened quietly. If you didn’t read about it, you may not have known. But on June 19, 2019, Victoria became the first state in Australia to introduce voluntary assisted suicide.
It is striking how much euthanasia changes things. Life is the first freedom that we all enjoy. It is the fundamental right on which all other rights rest. And as midnight came and went, we as a society passed over a brink that every generation of Australians before us had avoided. Doctors would now be entitled to offer their patients death.
This campaign has been simmering away in the background of our nation for a long time. It sells itself as the easy alternative, the compassionate solution. And it has made significant advances. The first major step came in the northern territory back in 1996, where the experiment of euthanasia lasted just a few months. Now we face a state law that is likely to last, at the least, for the remainder of the Andrews Labor Government.
Advocates for euthanasia believe that the medical industry has been waging a bloody war on the old enemy of death since the beginnings of time. They imagine that health care workers had been bludgeoning life into people even when all hope was gone and that it had been the stubbornness of doctors which blinded them to the futility of their efforts. Too many people, they say, had been forced to suffer hard deaths and at long last, it was time to let people exit life with grace and peace.
But this narrative is wrong. Doctors and nurses had not been rallying troops in some holy crusade against death. Rather their task had always been to offer their patients care through life and dignity at the end. Their job was to apply, as best they could, the slowly cultivated bioethics of human life – a mature vineyard of wisdom, generations in the making. Euthanasia takes a hatchet to the vineyard.
Previously we understood that no law, however carefully constructed, could entirely relieve the burden that many people have to endure through life. I work in the disability sector. I have seen people who have taken hard knocks, and I know that many of them – especially those who have acquired significant disability late in life – have at some point wished they could die. They regret that feeling now but had they had the option at that time they may not be alive today.
Suicide has always wounded the heart. We mourn suicide in a special way, the sheer horror and loneliness of it. Yet any state that employs the blunt tool of euthanasia is on the pathway to celebrating suicide. This is what makes euthanasia so dangerous.
The parliamentarians who decided to pass this law undoubtedly wanted to help people. No one could question the sincerity of a legislator who wanted to do something to give a patient more options in extremis. But this option comes with a price. When we accept euthanasia, we are forced to also accept the decision of suicide as an affirmation of personal autonomy.
The Labor Party expect that in the maturity of their legislation there will be up to 150 people accessing euthanasia every year. That number alone is staggering, and it’s almost certainly an underestimate. That number is based on the law staying the same as it is now.
Other nations that have ventured down this path have also started with seemingly immovable safeguards. Euthanasia is for the terminally ill, in the very last stages of terrible illness. Yet for all their safeguards, so many of these nations have ended up with radically different laws than the ones they began with. Mental health issues, early stage acquired disability, and the natural hardships of old age have all become entry points to physician assisted suicide.
And even if Victoria were simply better able to manage the system, how much difference has this law actually made? Every day patients are cared for by extraordinary palliative teams. Teams which are better able to manage pain and ease suffering than at any time in human history. In some cases, their ability to manage pain may very well shorten a patient’s life, but the intention has always been to respect the dignity of life rather than induce death.
The real tragedy is not a lack of euthanasia, nor the absence of an easy death. Death is almost never clean, or easy, or idyllic. The human soul was made to endure. No, the real tragedy is the absence of love. I have walked in the halls of palliative wards, and seen sick people in empty rooms. They are sad. There is an emotional chill in them, as they lay there alone.
Just a few weeks ago I was with my grandfather in his final hours of a terrible sickness. I was there when he died, and I know the anxiety felt as a loved one passes away. But as difficult as it was to watch, I can say that his was a dignified death. His room was never empty as other rooms were. And when dreams came, as dreams always do to comfort our passage from this world, those dreams were written by the voices of his family.
Our ability to genuinely help people at their most vulnerable is predicated on our commitment to the essential nature of the human person. As we begin to understand this new world we live in, let our hope be that all people who are old, who are sick, and who are disabled may be protected from the unintended consequences of these new laws.”
Blake Young is president of the Menzies Young Liberals and vice president of the Victorian Young Liberals.
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