April 23, 2024

Assisted suicide debated in Australia

Two states introduced bills this week

While currently overshadowed by an even more contentious debate over same-sex marriage, proposals for legalising assisted suicide are bubbling away in Australia.

This week, bills were introduced in the states of Victoria and New South Wales, each of them described as having the strongest safeguards ever against abuse. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that “This legislation will deliver the safest model in the world, with the most stringent checks and balances.” And in NSW, parliatmentarian Trevor Khan said his private member’s bill was “the most safeguarded process of any voluntary assisted dying scheme presently available in the world”.

Supporters of assisted suicide are lobbying hard. A survey in August, commissioned by Dying With Dignity NSW, found that 73% of Australians support voluntary assisted dying. However, the poll was conducted online and the question was loaded: “If someone with a terminal illness who is experiencing unrelievable suffering asks to die, should a doctor be allowed to assist them to die?”

Euthanasia is one of the chief interests of Australia’s best-known bioethicist, Peter Singer. He wrote a strong defence of legalisation for The Guardian. Twenty years of experience in Oregon, he wrote, has shown that safeguards are working. Most of the opposition is due to religious folks who have no business bring their dogmas to the public square:

Objections to legalising assistance in dying come mainly from those with religious beliefs contrary to this practice. To them I would say that, just as with same-sex marriage, if they do not want something for themselves, they are free to avoid it. But we live in a pluralistic society. Not everyone holds religious views, and many who are religious do not accept that it is always wrong to assist someone to die. I cannot see why the minority who have religious objections to voluntary assistance in dying should try to deny it to others who do not share their beliefs.

One of the world's leading experts in medical law, Margaret Somerville, attacked the proposed legislation, also in The Guardian. She rang alarm bells over safeguards for the vulnerable:

The risks and harms to society include damage to the shared values that bond us as a society and to our society’s “ethical tone”. We can’t judge the ethical tone of a society by how it treats its strongest, most privileged, most powerful members, but by how it treats its weakest, most vulnerable and most in need. Dying people belong to the latter group. With euthanasia we offer them death instead of loving care.

The outcome of the bills is far from certain. The results will not be known for weeks or possibly months. 

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