VAD law sends mixed messages to most vulnerable
Euthanasia legislation was recently passed in Queensland, the latest of Australia’s states and territories to do so.
There is an insidious subtext to these laws, namely, that life can lose its meaning and value. This message has consequences for vulnerable people in our society, especially those living with mental illness.
In New South Wales, Independent MP Alex Greenwich has announced his intention to introduce euthanasia legislation as soon as that state’s Parliament resumes. Dozens of politicians have expressed support for the bill, including most recently Nationals Leader John Barilaro.
At first blush, this bill is concerned with the suffering of the terminally ill and the grief of their loved ones. As Barilaro told the Sydney Morning Herald, “when humans are in agony, and there is no way out, there should be a humane way to end life with dignity”.
Viewed from this perspective, opposition from church groups, medical professionals or disability rights activists is irrelevant or fundamentally illiberal.
But the legalisation of euthanasia is a question that concerns all of society. It establishes a considered view about when life is worth living and when it is not. With this line of thinking, our lives are only worthwhile up to a certain point. When a threshold of suffering or personal loss is exceeded, suicide becomes a reasonable option.
This view of human life affects much more than just the medical options available to people nearing the end of their lives.
My own experience of living with significant depression for many years has given me a special insight on the effect that social attitudes on suicide can have on the psychology of vulnerable individuals.
Teenagers develop depression and anxiety due to the attitudes about body image and personal worth that they imbibe from social media.
Depression is endemic in law and medicine in part because of almost impossible expectations in the workplace.
What does this have to do with euthanasia legislation? Euthanasia legislation undercuts society’s efforts to ensure that its most vulnerable members receive one clear message: that life is worth living.
Here’s one example: search engines fortunately block access to information about self-harm and suicide. In lieu of this, however, one is instead flooded with information about access to voluntary assisted dying.
Similarly, the media filter news about suicides and publish the details of mental health services in articles containing sensitive content. Yet they supply great detail about the implementation of assisted dying in states and territories, often illustrated by vignettes of terminally ill individuals who have taken their lives.
At a time when Australia’s mental health crisis is worse than ever, we should heed the warning of American philosopher David Velleman, namely, that “the option of dying may give people new reasons for dying”.
We ought not simply focus on the benefits of a right to die, but also the burden that assisted dying legislation imposes on more vulnerable members of the community for whom the value of life is constantly in question.
If you are depressed, you crave hope – and you find it in the kindness and optimism of those around you. MPs need to consider whether the legalisation of assisted dying sends hope to the vulnerable or gives social sanction to their feelings of despair.
- is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, Australian Catholic University. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Research at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University in Washington DC.