EUTHANASIA: RIGHTS AND WRONGS
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
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
"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
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,