This past week has seen, yet again, another challenge on behalf of those fighting for Euthanasia to be legalized in Australia.  As in previous cases it was rejected.  However this is not the end of a story which has been presented time and again with great persistence.

Euthanasia, or “Mercy killing”, is not something new.  It was prevalent in ancient times and thought to be the reason why the Hippocratic Oath expressly forbids doctors killing or assisting in the killing of their patients.  Interestingly, up until 1642 the word “suicide” did not exist being described as Self murder.

Religiously, as in Christianity and Judaism, suicide has always been considered “an affront to God that demonstrated contempt for the gift of life”.  For Believers nothing has changed whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jew. “Do not kill” states the Decalogue while the Qur’an states, “Do not take life that is sacred.”

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Historically the movement towards euthanasia has been upheld by philosophers and public intellectuals who saw suicide as “a rationalist approach against conventional morality” [1] Voltaire and David Hume argued that people should be free to commit suicide if they perceived their lives to be too burdensome.  However, as Dowbigger has noted, “the boundaries between a right to suicide and a social duty to kill oneself were never terribly clear.”  [2]   Today it is notable that the majority upholding euthanasia claim to be atheists.

While I, personally, am in the ranks of those who regard life as a sacred Trust from God, to be cherished until such time as I am called upon to give back that Trust, I look upon euthanasia from the perspective that once we, as Australians, enter this dimension we cannot possibly foretell the outcome.  We may see this in the rosy glow of “death with dignity” or “mercy killing” but human nature being as it is, we cannot ever exclude the possibility of the “slippery slope” which will lead to involuntary euthanasia for reasons such as economics or ridding ourselves of those who do not fit into the perceived status or ideal.

Nazi Germany was probably the first country to accept voluntary or involuntary euthanasia. The first known case was that of a concerned father making a special request to Hitler that death be allowed for his baby son born blind, retarded and missing an arm and a leg.  Hitler gave this case into the hands of his personal physician, Karl Brandt, and it was carried out in 1938.  From there it went on with the formation of a committee which allowed for “mercy deaths” to be granted for children who had no hope of meaningful existence.

We, of course, may scoff and remind everyone that this is Australia in the 21st century, but a statement on an Australian website in favour of euthanasia has mentioned the following with regard to involuntary euthanasia: “Non voluntary euthanasia could cover: Babies grossly mentally or physically handicapped.  Children grossly mentally or physically handicapped.  The severe mentally afflicted.  Senile degenerates.”  It goes on to say, “It does seem undesirable to keep these unfortunates alive. Their continued existence burdens relatives, friends and the community, and often, though not always, themselves.”

Safeguards

One is always told of the underpinning safeguards which will control euthanasia in Australia.  Germany also had safeguards. In 1939 Hitler wrote instructions:  “Reichleader Bouhler and Fr. Med Brandt are responsibly commissioned to extend the authority of physicians to be designated by name so that a mercy death may be granted to patients who, according to human judgment, are incurably ill according to the most critical evaluation of the state of their disease.”  Over time Hungerhauser (starvation houses) were set up for the elderly, which may, or may not, have been due to the economic situation of the State, and by the end of 1941 euthanasia was reported as being a normal hospital routine.  Brandt later testified at his trial at Nuremburg that the underlying motive was to simply help those who could not help themselves.

Holland in recent times has accepted euthanasia.  In 1984 the Royal Dutch Medical Association endorsed euthanasia, issuing strict guidelines on how to govern it.  The patient’s condition had to be one of unbearable suffering impossible to be relieved, and the patient must freely request to die.  When the patient asked, the doctor should not proceed but consult another independent doctor.  Each case was to be reported as an “unnatural death” to local officials.  Doctors not following these guidelines were told that they could face imprisonment of up to 12 years.  These guidelines were approved by parliament and were meant to “protect and empower terminally ill patients.” According to one report, by 1995 a survey commissioned by the Dutch government estimated that “only” 3,600 people had died in that same year as a result of assisted suicide or euthanasia, but this only included cases where patients requested death.  “There were a further 900 cases in which patient’s lives were ended without their request, and nearly 1,900 deaths in which doctors increased painkilling drugs with the explicit intention of hastening death.”  Imprisonment for doctors in breach of guidelines has been virtually non-existent.

Dr. Herbert Hendin, Medical Director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has stated, “…The Netherlands has moved from euthanasia for the terminally ill to euthanasia for the chronically ill; from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress; and from voluntary to involuntary euthanasia.”  It is also now noted that teenagers may choose to end their lives in this manner.

We should never underestimate the importance of depression and loneliness which can be the underlying cause for seeking euthanasia by a large number of people.  Youth suicide is a problem which cannot be solved by legalising euthanasia.  People are hurting; we live in confronting times and souls cry out for help, but so often that help is not forthcoming.

As a community we should not neglect those in physical and emotional need.  We should also, as a nation, look more closely at responsible palliative care for those in the throes of terminal illness.

References

[1]   “Life Unworthy of Life:  A concise History of Euthanasia” Dowbigger Ian. Pub. Rowman & Littlefield.

[2]     “A Concise History of Euthanasia” Smith Wesley J. Magazine article from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life.

 

Recommended Reading:

“A Merciful End – The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America” Dowbigger Ian. Oxford University Press 2003.

“Euthanasia, Ethics, and Public Policy: An Argument Against Legalisation” Keown John

“Death and Medical Power: An Ethical Analysis of Dutch Euthanasia Practice” Henk A.M.J. Tenhave, Jos V.M. Welie.