Latest newsletter #158 Click to read online


by Bishop Peter J Elliott

An elderly couple believed in euthanasia. They were prosperous and well-educated people. Suddenly, they put their opinion into practice. They took massive doses of sedatives and were discovered dead. In a rational letter they explained how they had decided it was time to "move on". Neither of them had a terminal condition.

After the initial shock and a sense of disbelief, the relatives, children and grandchildren, became very angry. Why did they do this? Why did they deprive kith and kin of years of love, friendship and support? Whatever they may have intended, that couple left behind a legacy of grief - and bitter resentment. Their action was perceived as essentially selfish.

Their decision and similar actions show that euthanasia even at the level of suicide is never carried out in a vacuum. Euthanasia has a relational dimension. It affects other people, in the first place it impacts on the family community.

We need to reflect more on this relational dimension of euthanasia because the euthanasia ideology is based on a dogmatic individualism. "Autonomy" is asserted to promote legalized suicide and to open the door to "mercy killing". But there are many more victims of euthanasia than those who die.

Killing Inter-Generational Relationships
Once it is in place, legalized euthanasia penetrates, dislocates and corrupts family relationships, above all inter-generational relationships. These are those treasured relationships many people enjoy with older parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. But inter-generational relationships may also include more complex, fragile or even flawed relationships, so we need not idealise all these relationships.

Moreover inter-generational relationships are now under stress because people are living to a greater age. I visited a residence for the aged where the oldest person had died recently at 114 years. A nun, a dear friend to so many of us, died last year at 106. But longevity may also set up a subtle pressure that suggests that it may be better for grandma to "move on" or "step aside" for the next generations.

Some older folk are already succumbing to this pressure. They are the men and women who repeatedly say, "I am a would be better for me to move on..." Or, in a guilty mode, "I am sorry, but I don't want to be a burden on you..." That may have been a motive in the case of that elderly couple who committed suicide together. Perhaps their children later wondered whether they had told them that they loved them, that they were valued and cherished. So we are all challenged to speak the words of love, to open our hearts across the generations, to honour that covenant between generations proclaimed in the Commandment to honour your father and mother.

In some families tensions arise when questions of inheritance and disposal of property rise. Here modern materialism shapes desires and determines strategies. Unfortunately legalized euthanasia will offer a way of eliminating "obstacles". You do not have to follow Midsommer Murders to know what can happen in even the "nicest" families when prospects of material gain are glowing in the dark.

Violating the Sanctuary of Life
I turn to a more noble form of family life, when so many families live up to the beautiful vision of St John Paul II, that the family is a sanctuary of life. Another expression is a "citadel of life", that is, a secure protective community which cares for its most vulnerable members: the frail aged, the very young, and especially those who live with illness or disability. One dimension of the debate is how euthanasia opens the way to the killing of the vulnerable, particularly those who live with a range of physical or mental disabilities.

Particularly vulnerable members of our families are those who suffer from the "black dog" of depression. Many families support and sustain victims of depression. Those who suffer from depression may be suicidal, not always. When tragedy happens, clergy know only too well how deeply families suffer the loss of one they sought to protect.

However, once suicide-euthanasia is legalized the sanctuary of life and protective love is violated. The door marked "Exit" swings open and the easy “way out” beckons. By Supreme Court decision Canada is opening this door, politically correct Canada, a land I love to visit. Did those grand judges ever pause to envisage the consequences of their decision - within families, within the minds of men and women tempted to despair? I suggest that their decision was shaped by the liberal delusion of human "autonomy" and the rights of the imperial individual to choose and to decide. But that is a fantasy. We are just not made like that. We are not self-sufficient islands. We are relational persons who need one another, who need to care and to love - and to be cared for and to be loved.

Killing the Family Doctor
Another predictable effect of legalized euthanasia is the corruption of the medical profession. That effect penetrates your family and mine once the family doctor becomes, even notionally, a "Doctor Death". That ugly possibility emerges whether the doctor likes it or not, once the general practitioner has the potential to become a party to the intentional legal killing of family members. Fear of the doctor is rampant in those countries where euthanasia is now legal. But who would fear the nice doctor? Elderly people, like the Dutch woman who barricaded herself in her apartment so as not to let the doctor come in and kill her. The fantasies of the aged move in that direction once the healer and carer becomes even a potential agent of death.

We live in a secularised society where, for many people, the doctor is a kind of pastor or priest, and the words "doctor says" are revered. The doctor seen as an agent of death means a loss of the essential relationship which is axiomatic in good medical care, a relationship of trust. As I have learnt through attending several of the annual national bioethics colloquia, many doctors are working hard to develop better pastoral care of their patients. Doctors, you can forget about that project once you become even a potential "Dr Death".

Nor let doctors imagine that it will be that easy for them to look away and keep clear of legalized euthanasia. The moral dilemmas of abortion, cooperation and referral will extend into the killing of adults, and eventually children, as we see in Belgium.

To all members of the medical profession, let me say that you cannot ignore the euthanasia conversation. If the euthanasia lobby succeeds, if politicians cave in and a "kindly death" is legalized, this step will have two effects on your profession. First you will split into two kinds of doctor, those who kill and those who do not kill. The killing will include referral, the conscience issue that is already skilfully evaded in the interests of that carefully protected species, the abortionists.

The second effect will be involving doctors in committees and commissions empowered to make decisions on life or death in cases where "competence" to decide is doubtful. That inevitable provision of legalized euthanasia blows out of the water the myth of informed consent. Here we return to the impact on the family. In many cases the burden of "consent" will fall on the members of a family. They will have to decide, advised no doubt by those committees and commissions set up as legal "safeguards".

Killing Aged Care
The care of the aged is a thriving industry. There is nothing wrong with that because aged care meets a real need and is an excellent project involving thousands of dedicated men and women. The industry is generally well regulated and high standards of care are usually maintained. Families are involved in this vast project. But let us look into the future, to a society which has introduced killing various old people as part of aged care. The same collapse of trust that I outlined in the family doctor relationship will extend to carers once they become potential killers, at least in the degree that they will be involved in the euthanasia project. Nor will they be able to avoid involvement.

Uncontrolled "mercy killing" beyond the legal guidelines is already widespread in those nations where euthanasia is allowed. And that impacts on the families who entrusted their loved ones to what they believed were facilities offering secure and safe care for the aged. Once more we see trust broken down and care corrupted by the suspicion, fear and doubt that characterizes a culture of death.

From time to time a criminal personality working in aged care sets himself or herself up as an "angel of death" and quietly goes about murdering old people. Reflect carefully on how much oxygen will be pumped into sick minds once the door is open to legal euthanasia.

Palliative care has made steady advances, particularly in the field of pain management. But there is a massive ignorance of modern palliative care and I suggest that this is one reason for the alleged 80% or, as Dr Nitschke claims, 85% support for voluntary euthanasia in our society. People do not know to what extent pain can be managed.

There are also members of a family who suffered when a loved one died in past years. They witnessed suffering and they judge all cases through their own past experiences and sad memories. That is understandable, but it becomes dangerous when it misleads politicians who cite such experiences in speeches in favour of euthanasia. Hard cases never make good laws.

The Nazi Spectre Rising
The euthanasia lobby never wants anyone to revive the memories and appalling details of the T 4 Nazi euthanasia program,1939- 1941. Nor do they want us to see the Dr. Goebells' propaganda film where a man dressed in a doctor's white coat presents arguments in favour of "merciful death". Across seventy years it all sounds so familiar - there are many "useless lives" and "it would be kinder to end these lives" (film cuts to vivid shots of severe mental disability cases). To this was added a war economy message: that there are "so many mouths to feed", better to eliminate the "useless eaters".

That program was launched during a war with economic motives, but it did not just happen suddenly. We need to go behind the T 4 program. The prehistory is grounded in a movement which stretched back many years before the Nazis took power. That movement promoted the pseudo-science of eugenics, breeding "better people" for racial, health or economic motives. But is not the "designer baby" of our century a new form of eugenics? Eugenics has returned with euthanasia for those unborn babies who are deemed to be "defective". Why are there less Down Syndrome children around now? Because we already have selective abortion based on pre-natal diagnosis of conditions and disabilities. Abortion may even be based on pre-natal determination of the sex of the baby. An Australian ethicist has argued for euthanasia for babies born with serious conditions.

Again this impacts directly on the family, particularly the parents who carry the burden of decisions for life or death and who may later suffer wounds of guilt, regret and uncertainty. When the laws are framed with all those "safeguards", they may face another possibility, that others will decide for them whether they like it or not.

"Assisted Suicide" - a Door to More Killing
I reflected on the effects of assisted suicide within families who care for their vulnerable members. But opening the door to "assisted suicide" has a roll-on effect. We see this in Belgium where euthanasia as assisted suicide is now available for children. Just reflect on how that impacts on families, and do not imagine that the euthanasia lobby in Australia would draw the line at children. One asks: can a child give "informed consent" to his or her own death? Rightly we reject "consent" for sexual activity on the part of children. Why should it be different in the matter of choosing to kill oneself?

I conclude with a challenge to those who are called to vote on the various relentless attempts to legalize "mercy killing". Legislators need to understand three realities:

* Euthanasia is never the isolated choice of an individual - it impacts on other people, above all on our families.

* Assisted suicide is only the strategic door opening the way to wholesale euthanasia.

* It is not possible to set up workable "safeguards" that will regulate or control euthanasia once it is legalized.

The final point is one we need to affirm clearly. A legislative conundrum confronts all politicians once they take steps towards legalized euthanasia. No matter how hard they try, it is impossible to formulate or set in place any safe legislation concerning to control legalized killing. That is the logical and rational argument we need to set before politicians. But there is an even simpler and more direct argument. Set aside theories, laws or ideology and look honestly at the real world. Look at what is happening now in the Netherlands and Belgium. Do we want that here?

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