There is a good deal of irony in the decision of the legislature of the Northern Territory to permit “mercy killing”. Far from making the territory the “death capital” of Australia, it seems likely that the legislation will be virtually inoperable. Candidates for euthanasia are supposed to secure the consent of both a doctor with five years’ experience and a medical practitioner with some psychiatric
qualification – a condition it could be hard to .lfil outside the towns of Darwin and Alice Springs, particularly in view of the fact that the Australian Medical Association is committed to a policy of non-cooperation.
Coming just before the start of the week of prayer for Christian Unity the N. Territory’s decision led to an uncommon display of ecumenism among church leaders with even the Anglican and Roman Catholic Archbishops of Sydney combining to issue a joint statement. Anglican priest and columnist James Murray claimed in The Australian that euthanasia offers the churches an opportunity to re-assert their moral leadership at a time where they are losing members and influence.
Few of their members would like to see the
churches recover influence in society on the ck of a defective and potentially very .armful piece of legislation, but Fr Murray is pointing to a factor that deserves consideration, not just in Australia but in Britain and elsewhere in the world as well. If the 1980s was a period when economic issues dominated public debate, the 1990s look set to be a time when social and ethical questions are of permanent concern. People in many countries are anxious about rising crime, the breakdown of the family, animal rights, the treatment of homosexuals as well as about euthanasia. How well equipped are the churches to contribute to the debate on these issues?
In Australia it has to said that so far much of the running has been made by Professor Peter Singer, a University philosopher with a world-wide reputation for his defence of
animal rights who is also a prominent advocate of “mercy killing” 1’he Greens have recently adopted him as a candidate for the Victorian Senate.
Of crucial importance in this whole debate is whether or not assisted suicide is a matter that concerns only the individual who selects that option. Christians have tried to make the point that to permit doctors to give their patients a lethal injection is to cross a major boundary and breaching the principles of the sanctity of life. Elderly people are going to feel under pressure to agree to end their lives; trust between doctors and patients is likely to deteriorate; and doctors themselves now face adjustment to a profession which will sometimes require them to make heroic efforts to keep people alive, and sometimes ask them to be ready to put people to death. Already there are reports of aboriginal people in the N. Territory being afraid to go to hospitals and health centres for treatment.
Evidence from Holland in the Remmeling Report (1991) suggests that there is a thin line between voluntary and involuntary eutha
nasia with many people there being put to death before they have really had the chance to make a properly considered decision. Only recently research in Australia has shown that the suicide rate among young people rises when reports of such deaths appear in the media. Who can say we will not see a similar copy-cat pattern of requests for “mercy killing”?
At present in the N. Territory there is virtually no palliative care available for patients. It could be argued that requests for euthanasia are in fact cries for help and support. As one psychiatrist has put it, in asking to be put to sleep, patients are really making to their doctors comments like “I don’t think you can deal with my suffering” or “I don’t think you are going to be available to me during this painful time”. The legislators of the N. Territory have misread a tragic situation and put in place a process that far from alleviating the overall condition of the elderly and infirm will only make it worse.
Paul Richardson, the author of this letter, is Bishop of Wangaratta.