On February 3, I had the dubious privilege of attending a public debate hosted by IQ2, an Australian forum for live debate. The proposition: we should legalize euthanasia.
Speakers for the proposition were Philip Nitschke, founder and director of the euthanasia advocacy organization Exit Australia, openly gay Greens Senator Bob Brown, and Professor Peter Baume, former NSW senator and patron of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of NSW.
Speakers against the proposition were Dr Maria Cigolini, a GP and teacher of General Practice at the University of Sydney who has worked in palliative care for 20 years, former Federal Health Minister and current Shadow Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Tony Abbott, and Jesuit professor of law at ACU, Father Frank Brennan.
The debate began with an emotional and passionate tirade from Philip Nitschke. His 9 minutes seemed to me to be rather wasted on summarizing the current situation, berating Kevin Andrews for overturning the 1996 euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory, and assuring the audience that it is religion that forces politicians to rally against euthanasia.
Dr Cigolini followed with a detailed, factual summary of present palliative care options. In her speech, she said that legalizing euthanasia would take attention away from care issues and towards the far easier and ultimately cheaper option of lethal injection. She said that in the euthanasia debate, death is often viewed as an alternative to ongoing palliative care.
Dr Cigolini pointed out that many proponents of euthanasia have no training in psychological or palliative care and assume far too quickly that illnesses like depression should be treated with a fatal drug or a lethal injection rather than with compassion, medical assistance and ongoing support.
Dr Cigolini’s speech was followed by a quiet and pleading address from Senator Bob Brown, who quoted the Hippocratic Oath and told us that it was not right to impose one’s own ethical position on another. Most significantly, Senator Brown spoke about eliminating the “burden of suffering”. Relieving suffering isn’t sufficient for Senator Brown and although he often speaks publicly about his belief in a loving and compassionate God, the Christian concept of suffering seems to entirely escape him.
Following Senator Brown’s sedate oration it was Tony Abbott’s turn to bait the audience. His speech was passionate, political and at times very sarcastic. Mr Abbott spoke of his 99 year old grandmother and said he would be horrified to think that she would ever feel so unloved and unwanted as to consider suicide. He pointed out the hypocrisy of treating young and Indigenous suicide as a tragedy but of encouraging and assisting the elderly in the direction of euthanasia.
Professor Peter Baume followed Mr Abbott. His speech was the most articulate and intelligently researched of the 3 proponents. However, he played word games with the audience, proposing that we use the term “end of life decisions” rather than euthanasia. He assured us that nurses and doctors who object to euthanasia, would not be forced to do anything they considered objectionable. Sounds eerily like the status of abortion before it was decriminalized in Victoria last year.
Fr Frank Brennan took the part of peace-maker, sitting on the fence and offering no real moral authority as a guide. He said: “It’s not a matter of which side is more compassionate, it’s more about which side can put an argument about what the law might be.” He suggested that until such time as such an argument could be put forward, we should stick with “do no harm”. He even noted, at the suggestion from a member of the audience, that we should leave moral absolutes out of the argument because there is no unanimity about truth today. I was expecting something far more persuasive from a priest of the Jesuit order.
A sell-out audience of 1200 indicates that euthanasia remains a hot topic and pro-lifers cannot afford to relax. New euthanasia bills are introduced in the senate on practically an annual basis, usually by Senator Brown. It is a strange irony that at a time when we have the capacity to relieve pain more than ever before, some people in society are seeking to end fragile lives.
As ever, the Catholic Church remains strong in its opposition to the concept and practice of euthanasia, the Pope stating earlier this month that "euthanasia is a false response to the drama of suffering, a solution unworthy of man… the real response cannot be to give death, no matter how gentle, but to testify to love to help confront pain and agony."
© Eva Whiteley 2009