Euthanasia in Western Australia – Ashley Saunders

Jonathan Craig | vision.org.au
Monday, April 9th, 2018
In November, Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise euthanasia. The controversial new laws, which will come into effect in 2019, will allow people with a terminal illness to access ‘assisted dying’. Now the new End of Life Choices inquiry is investigating whether euthanasia should be legalised in Western Australia.

Family Voice Australia has made a submission to the inquiry, and national director Ashley Saunders was recently asked to give aural evidence. Talking to 20Twenty’s Neil Johnson, Saunders spoke about how accepting euthanasia could open the door to what he calls ‘the ultimate elder abuse’.

Most Doctors Oppose Euthanasia

Saunders said that euthanasia has been on the agenda in Western Australia since the last state election. Premier Mark McGowan, who supports legalising euthanasia, hopes parliament will vote on the issue by the end of 2018.

The committee has received more than 700 submissions, many of which point out the dangers these changes could create. The Australian Medical Association has warned Western Australia not to follow Victoria’s lead, saying that the focus should instead be on improving palliative care.

Association federal president Michael Gannon said that people under palliative care rarely request euthanasia. He warned that international experience showed that euthanasia could be extended to people suffering dementia, mental illness or other chronic diseases.

A 2015 AMA survey found that the majority of Australian Doctors oppose euthanasia. ‘It goes to the heart of our code of ethics,’ Gannon said.

Family Voice Australia object to the changes based on a Biblical code of ethics, and with similar concerns about their possible cultural impact. Saunders hopes his comments to the committee will be seen as loving and compassionate. ‘Love does not always give somebody what they want, or what they think they want, but rather compassion and love sets boundaries, and does what is good.’

‘We often hear about dignity, and we believe very firmly that there is inherent dignity and worth in every human life, from conception to its natural end, and that that dignity does not depend on life’s circumstances.’

Burden on Society

Saunders believes that normalising and accepting euthanasia may permit what he calls ‘the ultimate elder abuse’. He says we could end up in a culture which teaches older people that they are a burden on society, and that they owe it to their families to end their own lives.

But Saunders says it isn't too late to turn back. In New South Wales, euthanasia legislation was recently defeated by one vote, and the fight in WA is far from over.

And in Victoria, where euthanasia laws have already passed, assisted suicide will not become legal until mid-2019. ‘So even in Victoria it’s not too late, pray God, with a change of government and a change of will, for that law to be overturned before it comes into effect.’

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise that this idea is being raised throughout the country, with the Greens proposing federal euthanasia legislation to avoid differences between states. This is why Western Australia is such a key battleground, because the results there, as in Victoria, will impact the whole nation.

Saunders Spoke about an incident 40 years ago which sticks in his mind. As a young clerk, he was asked to give evidence at a coronial inquest into the death of an elderly lady following a knee replacement.

A nurse described how her family argued at her bedside about who wasn’t going to look after Mum when she left hospital. ‘The medical evidence was that she became extremely unhelpful and uncooperative, became extremely difficult with her rehabilitation.’

As a result, she developed deep vein thrombosis in her knee, which became an embolism and resulted in her death. ‘That was 40 years ago,’ Saunders said. ‘It is not fanciful to suggest that an environment can be created, if these kinds of laws are allowed, where somebody can think I owe it to my family, I owe it to others to end my life.’

Obliged to Die

As medical advances allow us to live longer, younger generations are becoming less willing to take on the burden of caring for their parents. Another important factor is ‘inheritance impatience’, the sense of entitlement which children feel to their parents’ money.

Saunders believes that legalising euthanasia will encourage the greedy to put pressure on the vulnerable, creating a culture in which senior citizens feel obliged to die. ‘In a sense, it’s the ultimate elder abuse, and in addition, it sends mixed messages about suicide.’

Advocates of euthanasia say that adequate safeguards can prevent these kinds of problems. Saunders says there’s no way to ensure that people are honest about their reasons for requesting death. It would be easy enough, he believes, for a person to tell medical professionals what they need to hear.

‘But deep down, they feel hounded, or they feel unvalued, and they feel harassed. They feel like this is what I need to do. I owe it to my family to end my life, because I’m just not loved. I’m a burden.’

‘We don’t want to send a message to vulnerable older people, or even vulnerable younger people, that they are a burden. We want to send a message that says you are valuable.’

Saunders also believes that, difficult as it may be, there is value in suffering. Euthanasia advocates often assume that those who oppose it haven’t experienced the kind of hardship long-term chronic illness brings. But Saunders says this isn’t the case. ‘I can point to my two nephews, who were born with Cystic Fibrosis, who have grown enormously through a lifetime of suffering.’

Saunders nephews have not only faced severe personal adversity thanks to their illness. They’ve also faced the deaths of lifelong friends. ‘And yet they not only have valuable lives, they make an enormous contribution to others.’

‘Even though our society increasingly worships youth, and increasingly wants a life without pain and suffering, we need to say pain is not good, suffering is not nice, but there is value and worth in every human being, even going through pain and suffering.’

Defending our Freedoms

When approaching issues with such high stakes, clear lines of communication are more important than ever. But as our society becomes more secular, it grows more intolerant of protest on religious grounds. ‘Authoritarianism is undermining the spirit of the constitution in this country,’ said Dr Augusto Zimmerman in a recent interview.

These issues are currently being explored by a religious freedom review, headed up by former Attorney General Philip Ruddock, which is expected to release its findings soon. The review aims to examine the intersections between religious freedom and human rights, and may have far-reaching implications for Australian Christians.

Dr Zimmerman suggests that, because religion and politics are inextricably linked, our right to defend the Bible is protected not only by freedom of religion, but also by freedom of political communication.

‘The High Court has held that there is a freedom of political communication that belongs to every human Australian,’ Saunders said. ‘In addition to that, even if we go to the United Nations declaration on Human Rights, the freedoms of thoughts and conscience and religion are not institutional. They belong to every person.’

He agrees with Dr Zimmerman that the Ruddock review needs to recognise that protecting the rights of religious Australians requires more than just offering exemptions to institutions. ‘This really is about protecting the rights of every individual to those freedoms, including the freedom of political communication.’

‘And so increasingly, when people are taken before anti-discrimination tribunals for offending some sexual or other minority, you’ll find that the defence will often say what we were doing was legitimate political communication. I think we’ll see that more and more.’

Vision will be keeping a close eye on the End of Life Choices inquiry in Western Australia, and the findings of the Ruddock review. Freedom for Faith's Michael Kellahan tells us more about how the review is going, and what to expect. In the meantime, learn more about inheritance impatience from Ashley Saunders, or explore the reasons behind the increasing interest in euthanasia with Dr Gordon Preece.

 

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