The Worrying State of the Euthanasia Debate
Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
Last month, I was a participant in a Q&A panel on “Voluntary Assisted Dying” at the Australian Medical Association (AMA) Victoria Congress 2017.
I was pleased to have been invited and hopeful that there would be a balanced discussion. But I was also somewhat concerned that might not be realized in practice, given the membership of the panel.
The panel participants included the well-known advocate of the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide, Andrew Denton, and the leader of the Greens, Senator Richard Di Natale, who also supports its legalization in certain circumstances.
The chair was Dr Sally Cockburn (a.k.a. Dr Feelgood on her radio program), another supporter of the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide. I oppose legalizing both doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Unfortunately, my concerns materialized.
First, my participation in the discussion was limited in several ways. The chair informed me that the question of whether or not legalizing doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia was a good or bad idea, ethical or unethical, was not open for discussion. She explained that the only topic to be discussed was the conditions which should apply for access to assisted suicide and how it should be regulated.
In short, the panel was based on an assumption that legalizing assisted suicide was inevitable in Victoria, even though legislation has not yet been tabled in the Victorian Parliament, let alone debated or enacted. This assumption is a pro-assisted suicide/euthanasia strategy as it leads people to believe there is no point in discussing views opposing legalization.
Legislative bodies only regulate conduct that they and the community consider to be ethical under certain conditions and they regulate to set out those conditions. We prohibit conduct we believe to be inherently unethical, as those who oppose euthanasia believe it to be. Consequently, discussing regulation affirms the ethical acceptability of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
On more than one occasion, I was told by the chair that I had been invited as a lawyer and not an ethicist, despite the fact that the latter has been my main professional role for forty years. Given this proviso, I was not surprised that the questions addressed to me from the chair were purely legal ones. For instance, I was asked to define mental capacity and dignity. This gave me speaking time and an appearance of fair time allocation among panellists, without opening up an opportunity for me to present the anti-assisted suicide/euthanasia arguments I wanted to propose.
A theme developed by the panellists who agreed with legalizing assisted suicide was that being absolute on the issue of its legalization is “not helpful” and that the voices in the public square debate should be those of reasonable people who were not absolutists. This, in fact, amounts to another pro-euthanasia strategy, because if one is not against the legalization of assisted suicide or euthanasia, one is necessarily for it in some form. While some people might be uncertain where they stand – and many people say they are uncertain – there is no entirely neutral position.
At the beginning of the event, the chair told the audience that they should SMS questions to her and that she would collate and present them; those who did not have an iPhone were told they should raise their hand and ask the question in person. She added that if the questioner spoke for too long or was presenting commentary or policy, rather than a question, the audience could shout “No, no, no!” and she would cut off the person.
It seems reasonable to assume this invitation was offered only in relation to an audience member asking a question. But when I prefaced an intervention by saying that I wanted to describe a case of euthanasia that showed its risks and harms, the chair interjected and said “No stories please” and a substantial percentage of the audience immediately joined in to shut me down, shouting, “No, no, no, no stories.”
In forty years of giving speeches, on average around twenty-five to thirty times a year, I have never encountered such an incident. Moreover, bear in mind that I was an invited guest speaker sought out by the AMA to be a Q&A panellist at the congress and the audience were all, or almost all, medical doctors.
This behaviour does not fulfil the requirements of respectful discussion. Indeed, it serves to stifle, rather than facilitate, debate on an important social and medical issue, and could be characterized as bullying.
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