Post Truth and euthanasia.
by Paul Russell
Australian media escalates debate - but with little substance.
The push for euthanasia has resumed in Australia following the Christmas break. Well at least it seems so given all the attention by Australian journalists to the issue this week.
In the latest barrage, the Sydney Morning Herald published not one, not two but three euthanasia articles online simultaneously yesterday (16th Jan) at 5:00am.
Ostensibly the articles are built upon the story that a cross-party pro-euthanasia group within the New South Wales Parliament is preparing to introduce a new bill into the NSW Upper House in the second half of 2017.
In one sense this really isn't news at all. This cross-party group have been drip feeding the media about this for sometime, most likely to provide the impression that serious minds have been engaging for a long period of time in developing a robust bill with every possible safeguard.
Forgive my cynicism; it's just that we hear this kind of thing all the time and all it ever results in, as it did in South Australia a few months ago, is a bill with bits and pieces cobbled together from earlier bills. The reality is, there is no safe way to kill people and no set of safeguards that can both protect all citizens and allow the kind of access to being made dead that advocates are seeking.
To be fair, the news report does say that the cross-party group will release a draft for public discussion in the next month or so; but really, with euthanasia and assisted suicide bills, there is nothing new under the sun.
I expect that the plan to introduce this bill in the second half of this year is simply strategic. Tasmania may be debating a bill by then as will Victoria. While even the most hopeful of assessments for this bill must surely realise that it is set for defeat in the Upper House, it is really all about raising the temperature of the debate nationally.
Unfortunately there has been no elevation in the standard of journalism or reporting. One of the trio of articles was titled: Facts must win out over smear campaigns in NSW euthanasia debate, expert warns. (nevermind that the expert cited said no such thing!) It refers substantively to a Churchill Fellowship study on the interface between Palliative Care and legalized Physician Assisted Suicide and Voluntary Euthanasia reported on by Dr Linda Sheahan in 2013. While the article makes it clear that Dr Sheahan opposes euthanasia, it makes a great deal - probably too much - of Sheahan's observations that suggest that some of the public debate is 'miscommunication and driven by a political agenda'.
Of course, 'miscommunication...driven by a political agenda' could refer to anything and either side of the debate. Nothing in the article talks about a 'smear campaign', so we are left to conclude that the headline is a slant taken by the journalist or the editor.
Sheahan does talk about the 'slippery slope' and the numbers of euthanasia deaths in a way that seems to minimize or dismiss concerns, but readers need to remember that her study was conducted in 2012 - before child euthanasia in Belgium and before the tide of dissent had begun to rise in the Low Countries. Sheahan's conclusions are open for debate.
Sheahan does make some personal concerns about euthanasia and assisted suicide and some supportive comments are included from a palliative care expert. But even here, the expert is only really introduced to create a segue so as to make the claim that 'palliative care was inadequate to alleviate the suffering of a small proportion of patients (between 2 and 4 per cent)'. Queue the pro-euthanasia conclusion!
In a more objective report (and in what was likely the first of these three articles), the author talked about the prospects of the NSW bills and interviewed or reported on the views of a number of MPs, the AMA etc.
The article quotes uncritically, NSW Upper House National Party MP Mr Trevor Khan (from an earlier debate in the parliament):
"What is the difference between allowing a terminally ill person to die naturally by abstaining from treatment; and allowing them to die through means of voluntary assisted dying?
"Both are aimed at reducing suffering; both are aimed at providing dignity in the final days of one's life; both have the same reasoning, intention and outcome. Both should be legally permitted."
This is a commonly heard statement but it is deeply flawed in its logic. Allowing someone to die naturally is a world away from either killing them (euthanasia) or helping them to die by suicide. The only 'allowing' in regards to euthanasia and assisted suicide is by way of state sanction.
And, no, they do not have 'the same reasoning, intention and outcome'. If we 'reason' that death is the good outcome regardless of the means then we may as well strike down all laws against homicide. If by 'reasoning' Khan is talking about a compassionate motivation, then, yes, the motivation could be said to be the same. However, there's a vast difference in intention here.
In 'allowing to die naturally' we allow our compassionate motivation to direct our intention that the person be made comfortable until they die naturally. In euthanasia we allow our compassionate motivation to form the intention to kill or the intention that the person be made dead by suicide. These are vastly different and should not be conflated. 'Miscommunication?' 'Political agenda?' It seems that some things can get by the thought police.
And, of course, everyone's favourite laxative, Go Gentle gets an obligatory mention. Interestingly, none of the articles has a quote from Mr Denton. Rather, one of the 'Go Gentle advocates' from the Nurses Federation gets a run.
In a follow up article late yesterday on the rival News.com.au network, another Go Gentle advocate, former Voluntary Euthanasia Party (VEP) candidate Shayne Higson spoke out. VEP has strong links to Philip Nitschke and Exit International and historically also to many Australian state based euthanasia groups. Denton has never publicly condemned the work of Exit International although many state based groups have sought to distance themselves.
Higson's claim is outrageous and is a fitting place to end this article. The News.com.au report was set up as a response to a NSW MP John Ajaka saying that he had an 'open mind' on the subject. It was, however, nothing more than a vehicle for Higson's comments:
Go Gentle spokeswoman Shayne Higson said the group was glad to hear Mr Ajaka has an open mind but that politicians need to move on euthanasia policy.
"This is a serious public health issue and it is no longer acceptable to oppose these laws on moral or ethical grounds," Ms Higson said on Monday.
So, it is fine for an MP to have an 'open mind' so long as they 'move on euthanasia policy'. Wow! Mr Ajaka: you can think what you like but don't get in the way, now!
And, by the way, don't bring your moral or ethical objections to parliament; that's simply not acceptable.
What twaddle - yet it is somehow okay for some to waggle the finger and talk about 'facts only please' while publishing such drivel?
Indeed, we do need a strong and open public debate. Someone needs to give our mainstream media some simple lessons on what that looks like.