Euthanasia: Rights and Wrongs

Author: Mike Cassidy


by Mike Cassidy "The question of euthanasia is a difficult one for many people partly because the word is used to cover a multitude of sins. It can mean anything from direct, active, intentional killing of a patient at his or her request to a direct, active, intentional killing of a patient without request or an indirect act of intentional killing by omission. People are confused about allowing a patient to die; and whether or not to allow a patient to die is the same as a homicide." Dr John Fleming, addressing a recent public meeting in Canberra, gave a clear view of why euthanasia ("intentional killing of an innocent person for merciful reasons") is wrong. He detailed how euthanasia violates fundamental human rights and why governments cannot permit even voluntary euthanasia without endangering the rights of all. "Legislation to legalise voluntary euthanasia directly attacks the social contract by which we citizens are able to live together peaceably. In other words, it's not a slippery slope into some abyss of darkness so much as a catastrophic undermining of the very foundations on which a civilised society can agree to live together." Dr Fleming defined the social contract as "those shared values by which we live together". He went on, "This is not a religious insight necessarily, although it is, but it is also the stuff of much of political philosophy." Drawing on his research in bioethics, Dr Fleming said, "All human societies survive simply because there are some fundamental taboos about certain basic, agreed human values. These are the fundamental things that we cherish and that we know we have to protect at all costs." "In the aftermath of the Second World War the nations of the world determined that it would never happen again. And thus the United Nations enunciated at the beginning its Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The Declaration begins by asserting the inherent dignity of the human person; dignity from the Latin word 'dignus', worth." "And arising out of that fundamental human dignity, says the Universal Declaration, there are certain inviolable and inalienable human rights, of which one is the right to life." Dr Fleming has found that all codes of medical ethics contain these same basic, fundamental values. "One of them," he said, "is you shall not kill the innocent. And this 'not killing the innocent' by the doctor, by a nurse, is cherished, and finds its full fruition in the twentieth century in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights." He had discovered that there was expressed historically, "as well as in the twentieth century, a 'consensus gensium'; an agreement among the nations about an irreducible, minimum number of human values which are to be protected in law and cherished by civilised societies." "And note well that the modern notion that we can exclude some members of the human race from moral consideration by depicting them as non-persons is not agreed to by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It states, that every member of the human family has these rights, that everyone has an inherent dignity, that there's to be no discrimination of any kind; and, in Article 6, everyone is to be treated as a person. So it doesn't matter what you think a person is, or whether you can conjure up a definition to exclude the unborn, embryos, foetuses; or the new born, as certain scholars do; or the demented elderly; or the schizophrenics; or any other group with disabilities. What the Universal Declaration says is, every human being is in the family; everyone is to be treated as a person." The same Declaration refers to these rights as inviolable and inalienable. "An inalienable right," Dr Fleming explained, "is a right of which I cannot be deprived and of which I cannot even deprive myself. Why not? Because if I do it will threaten the rights of others." To illustrate how this is so, Dr Fleming took as an example the inalienable right of liberty, of freedom. "I propose to sell myself into slavery; freely, voluntarily. I've just lost my job, I've a wife and three children, and I want them cared for; I want them protected financially. I am prepared to sacrifice myself for their good. This a noble reason. This a compassionate reason. Can you not see I'm oozing compassion from every pore of my skin. It's very compassionate. What will the government say to me? It will prohibit it. It will not allow me to sell myself into slavery, even if I want to. Why not? Because if the government allows it, it is tantamount to having legalised the slave trade: one person to be owned by another. And if that occurs, other people will be sucked into the vortex of the slave trade far less voluntarily than I propose for myself. Out of reasons of poverty, out of reasons of pressure, out of all kinds of reasons people may think it is something against their better judgement they ought to do. Not because they really want to do it but somehow life's circumstances have stacked up the cards that way." "So governments will not allow the slave trade in Australia, because the right to liberty is inalienable. I cannot give up my freedom, even if I want to. And the same applies to the right to life. I cannot give up my inalienable right to life even if I want to because it will threaten your rights and the rights of other citizens. It will leave your right to life vulnerable to an involuntary taking." Dr Fleming went on to discuss the empirical evidence that for him to give up his right to life would lead to the violations of others peoples' right to life involuntarily? He cited evidence from three places: the Netherlands, South Australia and the Legislative Assembly of the ACT. Responding to the fact that some doctors in Australia have intentionally killed their patients and the claim that, therefore, we should legalise euthanasia, Dr Fleming said, "If there is a discrepancy between our medical practice and our principle, then we don't adjust principle to practice, we adjust practice to principle." "We don't adjust principle to practice, we adjust practice to principle. The argument, that 19% of South Australian doctors are doing it anyway is a reason for legalising it, is sheer nonsense. About as much nonsense as saying a certain proportion of the community are tax evaders, therefore we may as well do away with taxation. No! We must adjust practice to principle." Dr John Fleming is Director of the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, Adelaide and the sole Australian member of UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee. He was brought to Canberra to appear before the Select Committee on Euthanasia by the Knights of the Southern Cross. Transcripts, printed and audio tape, of his public address reported here can be obtained by contacting the KSC on 06 239 7525 or by sending $5 per copy to PO Box 3635, Manuka 2603.