Free Vote: Abbott’s Euthanasia Position Welcome

THE APPARENT COMMITMENT by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to allow Coalition MPs a conscience vote on a euthanasia bill soon to be tabled by a Greens Senator is welcome, and perhaps overdue; the right of terminally ill people to a so-called death with dignity — enabling them to escape untold pain, sickening treatments, and the ultimately pointless regimen of palliative medicaments — is one a civilised country like Australia must enshrine.

It isn’t very often that I agree with the Communist Party Greens, and much less any of their mostly noxious parliamentary “representatives;” yet for once, one of them appears to be doing something that I believe is very much in the public interest — and with the qualification that certain safeguards need to be included, his bill seems worthy of multilateral support.

And whilst I nominally identify in philosophical terms as a conservative, the truth (as those who know me will attest) is that my views, whilst obviously to the mainstream Right overall, range from highly conservative to liberal in the classic sense. It is the liberal in me that is motivated to comment on this particular issue.

The first I heard of this latest attempt to legalise euthanasia in Australia was on Thursday afternoon, when oesophageal cancer sufferer Peter Short was profiled on Melbourne radio station 3AW in relation to a commitment he seems to have extracted from Prime Minister Tony Abbott to allow Liberal MPs a conscience vote on a euthanasia bill being developed by Greens Senator Dr Richard Di Natale.

Readers may peruse a report carried in the Fairfax press yesterday here that sets out some more of the detail surrounding Mr Short’s situation, his conversation with Tony Abbott, and how these pertain to the bill being drawn up by Senator Di Natale.

I am going to keep my remarks fairly general today: not least because until Senator Di Natale’s bill is complete, there is no useful point in discussing the minutiae before they have even been committed to print.

But broadly, I have always been in favour of some kind of regimen that allows a terminally ill patient, in control of their mental faculties, the option of a medically assisted death as an alternative to weeks or months or years of debilitating treatments that simply “manage” the process of death anyway.

Speaking personally, I have seen many instances first-hand of people who have been diagnosed with terminal diseases (usually cancer) who have gone on to die slow, often painful, deaths.

As things stand, these people have had two choices: accept treatment protocols that include (but are not necessarily are limited to) surgeries, experimental drugs, and unorthodox therapies that may exacerbate or deepen suffering; or to refuse treatment except for pain relief, and I know that pain “relief” in some cases does not relieve pain at all, whilst the patient — and remember, we are talking about friends and loved ones here — endures an often excruciating death as the disease progresses to its grisly conclusion unimpeded by medical intervention.

In short, the latter of these options — as brutal as this might sound — amounts to no more than a desire to get it over and done with.

For every individual who chose to expedite their demise by way of legal euthanasia, another would exercise their right not to, and to persist with their treatment; the point is that in both cases, the availability of choice to the individual is paramount — and at this time, such a choice does not exist.

Clearly, any legally sanctioned regime of medically assisted suicide (which is what euthanasia boils down to) needs to come with clearly delineated boundaries and some very rigid safeguards; ensuring the dying patient is in full control of their wits is obviously the most important, but other considerations — such as making sure sick elderly relatives aren’t being bumped off by their offspring to get early access to inheritances — need to be worked through as well.

And preventing euthanasia doctors such as Philip Nietschke from engaging in advertising, or prohibiting them from offering treatment beyond clearly defined medical parameters, would seem obvious.

This is an issue we will return to, developing as it is, and it is to be hoped that Senator Di Natale’s bill isn’t buried under the convenient pretext of parliamentary process, remaining unsighted (and un-debated) for years as an exercise in avoiding a longstanding and at times divisive social issue.

But for now, I make two points.

One, that federal Parliament is the correct forum for this matter to be determined; until this point, laws in contentious areas such as euthanasia and gay marriage have formed the basis for kite-flying and often malicious misadventure in the territories (where legislating in relation to them is unconstitutional) in pointless and at times ridiculous attempts by the Left to force the hand of whatever government sits in Canberra: usually where the federal government is Liberal, and usually to cause it political embarrassment.

Too many important issues are reduced to the status of political footballs by doing this, and the Left seems not to comprehend that doing so merely legitimises (and hardens) the resolve of those opposed to the measure in the first place. A similar phenomenon occurred not so long ago, centred on the gay marriage “laws” enacted by the Labor/Greens junta in the ACT.

And two, the fact Abbott — archly socially conservative on a personal level — is not merely prepared to allow his MPs a free vote on this issue but seems enthusiastic about doing so, further disproves the myth of “Abbott the right-wing religious zealot” his opponents have sought to promulgate for so long, and especially where his activities as a legislator are concerned.

I have said it many times: politicising these tricky social issues simply entrenches them, and makes them exponentially more difficult to navigate. There are some things that can’t be resolved by brute force with the objective of inflicting political damage on opponents underpinning that force. One would think the Left might have learned its lesson in this regard with the gay marriage debacle. It remains to be seen whether it heeds those lessons now.

Obviously, we will follow this issue as it evolves in the new year. But I find it greatly encouraging that the Prime Minister is prepared to let it be determined on its merits: and in this regard, it is incumbent on Di Natale to get his bill right on the first attempt.

This column minutes its best wishes to Mr Short and his family for a comfortable and enjoyable Christmas. As this will be the last time they share the festive season together, it is to be hoped their enjoyment provides those who remain with memories to treasure.