29 Aug 2012
Instead Professor Prasser says before any laws are modified, emotion must be removed from the debate and a Royal Commission or a neutral wide-ranging public inquiry established to get rid of the myths and look at the facts. The commission or public inquiry would investigate the legal and medical ramifications of voluntary euthanasia as well as the effects on society. A careful study of euthanasia legislation enacted overseas in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium as well as in the US states of Washington and Oregon should also be made, along with the impact of the legislation on society.
"The investigation by this citizen body, whether a commission or public inquiry, needs to be carried out truthfully, factually and in a non-emotive way," he says explaining that to clarify all the issues associated with so-called "mercy killing" requires time, patience and considerable skill by those people people carrying out the investigation.
An equally thorough inquiry carried out in Australia would be a two to three year process, he says and should not be rushed through parliament in a few short weeks. Nor should an issue as important and complex as euthanasia be decided by a referendum, he adds.
"The issue is not black and white and cannot be answered simply with a yes or a no."
Professor Prasser is equally dismissive of polls on the subject saying "the overwhelming popular acceptance of euthanasia is assumed" as a result of the 85% of Australians who responded positively to a single loaded question in a 2009 Newspoll survey which asked: "If a hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering, asks for a lethal dose, should a doctor be allowed to give a lethal dose or not?"
Such confronting personalised characterisation of the issue ignores its many complexities and subtly muddies the waters around the current legal position of pain relief to the terminally ill, he says.
Equally emotionally and persuasive are rare and tragic cases such as that of Tony Nicklinson, the 58-year-old British man suffering "locked in syndrome" who went to court in Britain this month to be permitted to die. He was refused this right but died of natural causes less than a week later.
"Profound disagreement about the nature of the problem is a feature of euthanasia as a public policy issue. There is also confusion about elements such as terms like 'terminally ill.' What qualifies as terminal and how accurate is the diagnosis? 'Unrelievable pain' is another, who is to judge this and does this apply to psychological as well as physical pain. It also brings into question informed consent and the role of the doctor," he says pointing out that euthanasia has far reaching implications for individuals, institutions and society, the dimensions of which mean that none can be addressed in isolation.
This is why Professor Prasser believes it is vital for a Royal Commission or public inquiry be held before any euthanasia policy is legislated. "People must be given the opportunity to think more fully and seriously about important public issues, to be part of the meaningful dialogue and deliberation that acknowledges different values and beliefs is more likely to lead to a sound and lasting policy solution than an adversarial approach or the 'tyranny of the majority.'"
Engaging the public in this way would be a welcome new feature to the Australian political process, he says and describes the current system as one characterised by "rushed policy development, demands for 'instant' policy solutions, flawed policy processes and the trivialisation and politicisation of national policy discourse."
Populism and rushed policy decisions are increasingly being made with the hope of turning the polls around and winning votes. And this may well be the case in Tasmania where the state government is struggling and many predict a wipe-out at the next election.
In a bid to turn this around in the past few months not only has Premier Lara Giddings announced plans to legalise same sex marriage but has given her support to a bill legalising voluntary euthanasia. Despite the promised discussion paper not yet released, let alone a full inquiry held, Premier Giddings says she hopes to have euthanasia legislation before the Tasmanian Parliament before the end of the year.
Confident the bill will pass, Dr Philip Nitschke, director of Exit International has already announced plans to launch a Tasmanian home-visit clinic program and to have this up and running by this time next year. Modelled on a Dutch version of assisted suicide which has operated out of a van since March this year, Nitschke's program would allow doctors to travel to patients' homes and lawfully prescribe and administer the lethal drug Nembutal.
"The distinguishing characteristic of euthanasia as a public policy problem is its moral dimension which challenges the fundamental principles on which society is based," Professor Prasser says and quotes from the 1994 House of Lords inquiry which found it impossible to set secure limits on voluntary euthanasia: "to create an exception to the general prohibition of intentional killing would inevitably open the way to its further erosion whether by design or inadvertence, or by the human tendency to test the limits of any regulation."
SHARED FROM ARCHDIOCESE OF SYDNEY