Why Australians Need a Right to Die

Senator Bob Brown has been trying for some time to repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act, a federal law that denies the Northern Territory and the ACT the right to legislate for assisted suicide. But the new-found power of the Greens and federal parliamentary arrangements arising from the hung parliament will soon deliver a vote.

If the euthanasia act is repealed, the 1995 Northern Territory law it was designed to overrule will be back in operation. The ACT, which at the time of the federal kibosh was set to introduce dying-with-dignity legislation, may try again.

Opponents of the right to die with dignity have been tut-tutting about the Greens’ commandeering of valuable time to debate the issue, which Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says is not “bread and butter”.\ Those who are terminally ill, who fear they might be someday or love someone who is, see it differently.

Indeed, I bet that most of the conscience issues likely to come before Parliament this term will be of far greater interest to the average Australian than most of the legislation that a typical majority government unilaterally decides merits attention.

A 2007 Newspoll survey found 80 per cent of Australians supported doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill and suffering. Of those who did not, most (84 per cent) were religious. Despite this, opponents of reform have lately taken to insisting that religion has nothing to do with their stance.

While this makes sense tactically, the results can be confusing. In a pluralist society, appeals to the faith-based views of religious groups to justify laws that govern us all must – and should – fail.

But when faith-based commitments are the true source of a conclusion that dying with dignity is wrong and reason is used selectively in a post-hoc justification strategy, the result can be an intellectual dog’s breakfast.\ The tools of secular ethical reasoning can’t be used in good faith if one’s faith commitments require a particular conclusion be reached. You must go where the argument takes you.

Further confusion arises when politicians think the personal choice they would make if faced with a terminal illness must match the decision they make as legislators about dying-with-dignity laws.

Laws that allow Australians to die with dignity won’t compel anyone to use them. This contrasts with the current situation, in which laws mean all terminally ill Australians must face their death in the manner one religious group thinks is right.

MPs who truly believe in religious freedom and the rights of the individual should support legislation to allow everyone to choose how they’ll face their own death, even if the choice to die with dignity is not one they would make personally. Indeed, it is hypocritical for them to use a conscience vote to pass laws that deny a freedom of conscience to others.

Opponents of dying with dignity will tell you that the core moral principle in a civilised society is respect for life. This is outdated tosh. The central moral value in a modern multicultural society is autonomy, the right of individuals to determine the course of their own lives and deaths according to their own needs and values.

It is easy to tolerate others’ choices when we agree with them. The true test for “pro-life” politicians will be if they understand enough about what religious freedom really means to permit their fellow citizens to make a moral choice they think is wrong.

Publication history

In the end, we should have faith in our right to choose  The Sun-Herald