The Challenge of Euthanasia

The push to legalise euthanasia continues in the West. The Benelux countries led the way with legalisation (the Netherlands, 2002; Belgium 2002; Luxembourg, 2008), and some other states and countries have followed suit since then. While euthanasia is presented as something compassionate, it is anything but.

Plenty of helpful resources on this are available, but here I want to mention two new resources which are worth being aware of. The first is a helpful piece in today’s Weekend Australia by Paul Kelly, and the second is a soon to be released book by myself.

Kelly’s piece is a lengthy and articulate warning about how we must avoid legalising euthanasia, since that will spell the end to a compassionate society. His entire article is well worth reading, but let me tempt you here a bit by sharing some of it. He begins:

If you love your parents, respect your children, care for your society and think compassionately about your world then it is time to open your heart and brain to what happens when a jurisdiction legalises killing or, as it is called, euthanasia.
The justification for euthanasia lies in human rights, individual autonomy and relieving pain — all worthy ideas, and that may prompt the question: why then is euthanasia still opposed by most nations, most medical professional bodies around the world and the Australian Medical Association?
The reason is not hard to find. It is because crossing the threshold to euthanasia is the ultimate step in medical, moral and social terms. A polity is never the same afterwards and a society is never the same. It changes forever the doctor-patient bond. It is because, in brutal but honest terms, more people will be put at risk by the legislation than will be granted relief as beneficiaries.

He looks at how the slippery slope has been in action in countries that have already legalised euthanasia, despite all their assurances of safeguards and the like. He then looks at the real issue here: the need for more emphasis on palliative care:

Palliative Care Australia chief executive Liz Callaghan tells Inquirer: “The practice of palliative care does not include euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, and palliative care does not intend to hasten or postpone death. PCA believes the Australian government needs to increase access to palliative care.
“Currently 70 per cent of Australians want to die at home but only 14 per cent do. We believe more needs to be done to ensure that this can happen. Access to integrated, comprehensive support and pain/symptom management is often inadequate, inequitable or may not meet patient needs.”
Callaghan says evidence is that pain management improved from 2011 to last year based on data collection from 115 specialist palliative care services looking after 20,000 patients needing pain management. She says PCA believes more needs to be done to ensure people are better educated about their end of life care choices and palliative care. The PCA believes any request for euthanasia requires “a respectful and compassionate -response”, with Callaghan saying euthanasia is an issue for parliaments.
It is ironic this week that more evidence has emerged about the shocking impact of suicide in this country, particularly for Australians aged in the 15 to 44 age group. How, pray, does legalising euthanasia help the campaign against suicide? The most bizarre notion this week was the suggestion that legalising euthanasia may lower the suicide rate.
In many ways this entire debate is about how to interpret love and care in the context of death. Hug the person you love. But realise this is also about deciding the degree of discretion doctors have dealing with death. It may be good for a doctor to follow a patient’s wish for a lethal injection but that must be assessed against the total social impact of a regime that allows life to be terminated.
If we proceed then life will change, there will be a “slippery slope”, your relationship with your doctor will be different, the vulnerable will have reason to feel uneasy, the push to make euthanasia a right will be inevitable, the frail will feel obliged to volunteer and our values as a community will shift more quickly than you appreciate.

euth-2My own book, The Challenge of Euthanasia (hopefully out later this month) also looks at these issues in some detail. With well over 200 footnotes, it is a comprehensive and well-documented examination of all the issues involved in the euthanasia debate.

Like my earlier books on homosexuality and abortion, this volume is divided in two parts: the first half looks at the social, medical, scientific and moral concerns, while the second half examines the biblical and theological aspects. Thus both religious and non-religious folks should find this book of benefit.

The first half begins by carefully assessing the terminology and definitions involved, and then deals with ten major objections to legalised euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide. These are:

One. The doctor-patient relationship is weakened

Two. The right to die implies a duty to kill

Three. The most vulnerable will be at risk

Four. Legal euthanasia sends out the wrong message

Five. Autonomy, freedom of choice, and self-determination

Six. “Safeguards” and the slippery slope

Seven. Hard cases make for bad law

Eight. Faulty diagnoses and prognoses

Nine. Palliative care

Ten. A faulty understanding of compassion

I conclude the first section of my book with the words of ethicist Gilbert Meilaender:

Our task is therefore not to abandon those who suffer but to “maximize care” for them as they live out their own life’s story. We ought “always to care, never to kill.” And it has, in fact, been precisely our deep commitment not to abandon those who suffer that has, in large measure, been a powerful motive force in the development of modern medicine. Our continued task is not to eliminate sufferers but to find better ways of dealing with their suffering.

I encourage all of you to read the helpful article by Paul Kelly. And if you require more information, data, statistics, and arguments, you might consider grabbing a copy of my new book. I will keep you posted when it does appear.

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6 Replies to “The Challenge of Euthanasia”

  1. Yes euthanasia is wrong and Bill has highlighted some of the major issues. Good.
    My observational advice, having watched my father and uncle die, to people having to manage relatives in a palliative care situation is:

    Ensure hydration is maintained at all times, if possible, usually by a drip.

    Pain relief is given to make the patient as comfortable as possible.

    Any other steps are taken to make the patient comfortable e.g. use air beds, moistening lips and mouth, continence issues managed frequently, oxygen, food if possible given, etc.

    Ask questions of the medical staff if you are not happy with what you see.

    Check that the Liverpool Path way is not used

  2. As a nurse, I find palliative care a gentle path to take, and end of life patient care is usually excellent. But at the same time I think even that decision tends to close the door on hope of recovery. And yes, I know that it is a choice only for those who are diagnosed as ‘terminal’. Yet even here we are ‘playing God’. because in more than 20 years of agency nursing I have seen a considerable number of patients who were categorized as ‘palliative’, and yet made either a complete or partial recovery. You see, the bottom line is that we are NOT God.

    So having said that, I am sure you can understand how I could never advise a patient to choose the euthanasia option, even if it were to be legalized. On the other hand, I WOULD agree (even offer, if allowed to do so) to pray for that person. Sadly when I did this once, at a Catholic hospital, this caused me to be refused further employment at their facility (even though the patient ask me to pray for her). I see prayer and encouragement as hugely important in the healing context, just as I see any hint of euthanasia as entirely unacceptable. Where there is life there is hope. And a culture of ‘we can always choose death’ is NOT what the medical or nursing professions were designed to be a part of.

  3. @James – Sadly, palliative care (except in the more exclusive private hospitals) often does not include IV hydration. And often even basic hydration and mouth care are neglected due to overtaxed (or unwilling) staff. Yet patients are generally kept comfortable, with individually prescribed analgesia. My only negative feelings re the palliative option are that once a patient is designated ‘palliative’, it leaves him/her little hope of recovery… and even the best doctor is not God!

  4. Thank you Bill,

    This is one of your best articles in my eyes, your new book sounds great, well worth adding to any collection and helpful in addressing our objections to the death culture in our society from the point of view of such a compassionate and faithful Christian as you, blessings from yours in Christ.

    Your book will assist me in writing of this sad lack of real compassion in our society lead by our state Labor Government in particular, in a letter sent via the Australian Christian Lobby before Christmas so we can have a safer 2017. Here’s another link:


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