ACT Voluntary Assisted Dying: going where no one has gone before!
The repeal of the Andrews amendments was consistently portrayed as a ‘States Rights’ issue – ironically given that the Territories are not States and, in differing ways, much more limited than States in a whole raft of areas. That is a discussion for another time and place!
The ACT Assembly does not simply seek equality with the States, however. It seeks to go further in limiting the protections due to human life; it seeks to broaden access to state-sanctioned killing; it seeks to go where no one has gone before.
The Bill before the Assembly has three areas which are novel in the Australian context: there are no residential requirements – any connection with the ACT is sufficient and a waiver may be sought for those whose connection seems tenuous; there will be no requirement for a terminal illness or prognosis of a time of death – the person simply has to have a condition that is “advance, progressive and expected to cause death” along with the person believing that they are or may suffer intolerably, in other words all the criteria of old age; it will not be necessary to have two medical practitioners involved in the determination of eligibility – two registered health practitioners will be sufficient.
These measures seek to place the ACT at the forefront of breaching ethical boundaries. Yet, the Minister responsible for developing and shepherding the Bill through the Assembly has also publicly queried whether euthanasia should be open to children and whether the option of euthanasia could be included in Advanced Care Directives (so that the question of competence to request euthanasia is eliminated); how best to limit the notion and application of conscientious objection.
The basis claimed for the provisions in the Bill and those indicated as being part of the first Review of the Bill should it become law is compatibility with the ACT Human Rights Act. In its submission to the Legislative Assembly Select Committee Inquiry, the ACT Human Rights Commission takes up a number of these issues – calling for the removal of the age restrictions and further provisions to address the lack of or loss of capacity to make a euthanasia decision.
The Catholic Church argues for and supports human rights – it does so based on its own long theological and philosophical reason but also in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rights under this international convention are shared communal rights. Such rights are predicated on your being human. They are not contingent on your having a particular quality or attribute, for instance, autonomy or intellectual capacity. The application of rights imposes an obligation. For instance, if you have a right to health care or education, I have an obligation to assist in delivering that – the rights and the obligations are communal. Hence, we have public education and health systems because everyone has a right to these and we all must provide them.
For this reason, the right to life under the Declaration is considered inalienable – it is both the necessary pre-condition to exercise all other rights, and it cannot be removed – even at one’s request. This is not vitalism – no one has to seek to extend their life at all costs; one is free to sacrifice one’s life for the greater good. However, there can be no right to access state-sanctioned killing or euthanasia because such a right would impose an obligation on us to supply the lethal action.
Yet, as a society, it seems we are content to allow those who, due to suffering and infirmity, believe their life is no longer tolerable to choose to end their lives. Instead of seeking means to limit or address the suffering, as a society, we seem willing to turn away from those in need. The ACT Human Rights Commission, along with others, is seeking an even wider remit for the state to end life: those who are usually due special and vigilant protection – minors and those who lack decision-making capacity – should have access to requesting euthanasia and being killed by themselves or health care workers. It is a bizarre notion of human rights that is predicated simply on an expressed choice – not even necessarily a timely choice but one potentially made years in advance.
The ACT prides itself on being especially progressive – note that it is the only jurisdiction to have voted ‘yes’ in the last two referenda – something I am generally pleased about as a resident of the Territory. Yet this is the line in the sand. How can being progressive involve removing protections for the vulnerable? How can it limit all understanding of rights to simple choice? How can it, at the same time, limit the capacity for individuals and those who provide health, welfare and aged care to seek to protect and preserve human life by objecting to participation in euthanasia or any of its processes?
The ACT Human Rights Commission is arguing that choices made well in advance of a lack of competence or being made by minors should bind the community and enable state-sanctioned killing while at the same time accepting that there should limits on conscience objection.
A common misunderstanding regarding conscientious objection is that, somehow, having such an objection limits the other person. Conscientious objection places an unalterable obligation on me to not act contrary to my conscience; to not co-operate with an act that has been determined as incompatible with my very being. This is not a judgement on your or your choices; it is a self-referential judgement: I have deemed this to be wrong and I cannot take part. Since it is contrary to my very being, how can any consideration override that? Yet, it seems that those who are charged with the protection of human rights in the ACT do not see this as a problem.
It is indeed going where no one has gone before!