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Euthanasia: we can live without it

"What we're talking about is killing people"

"What we're talking about is killing people"

Former Prime Minister weighs into euthanasia debate.

by Paul Russell

Bob Hawke was an Australian Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991 and remains the longest-serving Labor Prime Minister since Federation. His achievements are either overshadowed - or perhaps contextualized - by his 'knockabout Ocker' persona epitomised in his world-record downing of a yard of beer in 11 seconds while at university in Oxford.

Hawke was always a supporter of euthanasia, but never a campaigner. That changed this last week when he announced a 'new found passion' for the issue; most likely related to his interviews with the ubiquitous Andrew Denton.

Hawke left parliament shortly after he lost the leadership to Paul Keating in 1991. He was therefore not in the parliament when the Andrews Bill was debated in 1996 that squashed the Northern Territory's 1995 euthanasia law. Even so, any Australian with any access to the media at that time would have been aware of the intensity of the debate in the parliament where he had presided for nearly 8 years.

And yet Hawke's main thesis as to why Australia has no euthanasia laws is the facile argument that says that politicians are gutless to act for fear of losing their seats; a shibboleth dragged out from time-to-time by euthanasia supporters ostensibly to avoid scrutiny of the real reasons why their initiatives continue to fail.

Any one who has read the hansard from euthanasia debates across Australia over many years now will understand just how false this claim is. Politicians may not be the most highly respected class of persons, but to say they are 'gutless' and vote only according to self-preservation instincts is not evident in any debate.

Hawke postulates that MPs "...first concern is saving their seat and they don't want to do anything that's going to lose them votes." That principle is well-understood. But while the Sydney Morning Herald notes polling support for euthanasia at '75 to 85 per cent', Hawke seems to contradict that by adding that "...you've got a significant number who don't like...enough for a lot of politicians to say, 'I don't want to get involved." 15 per cent is a significant number, but, on balance, surely not a vote changing percentage. If the polls are right, then there's more votes to be had in saying Yes.

It seems perverse to argue on the one hand that polling majorities should dictate policy while, at the same time, laying the claim that MPs think that offending this notional '75 to 85 per cent' majority by voting against a proposition is a vote winner. There must be something else at play here. The assertion is simply not true.

One significant concern is the subtle pressure that may be experienced by people with failing health of people living with disability should there become available 'an alternative' to their condition. Hawke provided a prime example:

Mr Hawke also reflected on his personal circumstances, saying he had an "understanding" with his wife Blanche d'Alpuget that "something" would be done if he ever lost his presence of mind.

"Something I could not stand would be to lose my marbles. If that were in fact to happen, then something is done about it," he said.

He is clearly referring here to Alzheimer's. 'To lose my marbles' may be a common colloquial expression, but in this context it is demeaning a large and growing section of our community experiencing the loss of cognitive function. He is saying, in a shorthand way, that he doesn't want to be like them. It is a pejorative; an unwelcome slight that reinforces discrimination.

But this stands against the oracle-like proclamation by the Sydney Morning Herald in the same article that, "Any proposed model for legal euthanasia would only apply to terminally ill patients who are deemed to be of sound enough mind to make an informed decision." So, unless the 'silverhaired bodgie' as Hawke is affectionately known, has a terminal illness, that 'something' he wants done won't happen legally.

Hawke's entry into this debate has, as one would expect, captured the attention of a significant section of the media. Some of the most balanced commentary came from a discussion on the ABC Network's The Drum program.

Guest commentator, The Australian newspaper's Caroline Overington entered the fray by making the straightforward observation that, 'what we are talking about is killing people.' She went on to describe her fears that any law would be abused, which elicited the admission of the pro-euthanasia commentator, Quentin Dempster that, 'of course any law can be abused.'

This is not just 'any law'. There is no remedy for a euthanasia death that constitutes an abuse of that law. Such an abuse constitutes the offence of homicide; but we know that in Belgium, for example, in the many thousands of cases over more than a decade, only one has ever been referred to justice. Even there, the penalty is likely only ever to be noted as a breach of procedure. The law protects doctors. To admit that a euthanasia law can be abused is to admit that people will be wrongfully killed. That's a very callous admission in the context of supporting such a change.

But the most interesting and salient comments in the program came from GetUp Senior Campaigner, Miriam Lyons. GetUp is an online activism network that has solid credentials on the progressive side of politics. Miriam's comments reinforce the understanding that euthanasia is an issue that finds opponents across the full width of the political spectrum.

Lyons identified some similarities between euthanasia and another significant social issue, summarising that, "It's very hard to call a choice truly free and truly dignified unless it is made from a position of equality. So that means you have to have the best aged care, the best palliative care that a civilised country can afford, that the quality of pain relief is not going to depend on your level of income and that's not the case in Australia right now. We need to make sure we do a lot more to make sure that is the case so that people aren't making this choice in a situation where perhaps what they really need is better mental health treatment..."

Quentin Dempster closed the segment, by interjection, endorsing Denton. Apparently, according to Dempster, Denton has done his research and has been overseas. How those factoids change the debate he did not say; many have done likewise and come to the opposite conclusion. Denton's works are not sacred writ and the polls really tell us very little. Lyons and Overington, at the very least, have told us that there's much more to this debate. 

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