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photo_right_blank.gif (1614 bytes)  Opinion Pieces

Danger in legalising assisted suicide

The Examiner (Launceston)

By Mary Joseph
Saturday, 29 May 2004

Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations spokeswoman Mary Joseph presents her side of the debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Elizabeth Godfrey wasn't terminally ill when she committed suicide. Sick for a number of years, Mrs Godfrey didn't want to go into full-time care and was suicidal. But she was not terminally ill.

Predictably, the trial of Mrs Godfrey's son John, who admits to assisting her suicide, has led to calls for the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia. John Godfrey was given a 12-month suspended sentence by Justice Peter Underwood in the Tasmanian Supreme Court this week.

Mrs Godfrey's tragic case illustrates why it would be dangerous to legalise assisted suicide or lethal injections. Her case is associated with a trend across Australia where, in a number of high-profile cases, non-terminally ill people have taken their lives making "rational suicide" the new frontier for the euthanasia lobby.

This is the reason Exit Australia founder Philip Nitschke continues to promote his proposed suicide pill, has produced a suicide bag and has constructed a carbon monoxide suicide machine. It contrasts with community concern about the suicide rate in Australia.

Elizabeth Godfrey was, by all accounts, determined to commit suicide. While Mrs Godfrey suffered from chronic illness and pain, she rejected a recommendation that she receive 24-hour care in a nursing home to address her symptoms. She didn't want to be reliant on others. She had previously attempted suicide on two occasions.

Decisions to commit suicide are not made in a vacuum. They depend very much on the environment in which they are made and on the attitude of others. The defence counsel for John Godfrey is reported to have said Mrs Godfrey was "determined to kill herself and (had) every good reason to do so on the medical evidence".

Was Elizabeth Godfrey's decision helped along by others agreeing that suicide was the best response to her difficult situation?

Media reports say that John Godfrey felt he would be betraying his mother if he didn't help her end her life and wanted to ensure she did not harm herself by another failed attempt. Mr Godfrey was one of the many carers in our society struggling with the responsibility of caring for their loved ones, deserving more support.

But what would have happened if more people had argued the compassionate response - that she was needed, that she was valued and that suicide was no solution? What would have happened if Mr Godfrey had received better support as her carer?

Women are at particular risk of euthanasia. There is a strong cultural influence in our society where women, especially older women, are expected to be willing to sacrifice their own interests for the benefit of others. Chronically ill women are acutely aware of the cost of their treatment and of the difficulties their illness can cause their families and friends.

This is the danger of legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide. It puts the onus on each suicidal or terminally ill person to decide to continue to live. These options can be difficult to resist when you're ill - even more so when others believe the rational choice is to end your life.

In 1998, Tasmania's Parliamentary inquiry into euthanasia found that "the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia would pose a serious threat to the more vulnerable members of society and the obligation of the state to protect all its members equally outweighs the individual's freedom to choose voluntary euthanasia".

When considering vulnerability of patients, the British House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics concluded that: "Belief in the special worth of human life is at the heart of civilised society. It is the fundamental value on which all others are based, and is the foundation of both law and medical practice. ... Society's prohibition of intentional killing ... is the cornerstone of law and social relationships. It protects each one of us impartially, embodying the belief that all are equal.

"It would be impossible to frame adequate safeguards against non-voluntary euthanasia if voluntary euthanasia were to be legalised. It would be next to impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law was not abused."

Philip Nitschke co-wrote an article in the medical journal The Lancet detailing the experience with euthanasia in the Northern Territory. The article revealed that "pain was not a prominent clinical issue in our study. Fatigue, frailty, depression and other symptoms contributed more to the suffering of patients". These are the factors that should be addressed if we are to prevent more people abandoning themselves to the despair of suicide.

The drive for euthanasia may well reflect a lack of understanding of the treatment options available to people with a terminal illness. Palliative care accepts that a point has been reached where a cure is no longer possible. It switches emphasis from medical treatment to treating symptoms so that the patient can live or die in the most comfort possible.

While it's not easy to be dependent on carers, we must continue to support patients by insisting on their worth and value. We should not be agreeing to help them to end their lives.

Mary Joseph is the spokesperson for the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations. mary@righttolife.asn.au