Starting the debate on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide

We need a debate that considers the empirical evidence about voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. Anne/Flickr

Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide are never far from the public spotlight. But we still haven’t had an honest and open debate about this issue in Australia.

End-of-life matters crop up from time to time, for example, when there’s a new bill proposing liberalising the law or when someone is prosecuted for being involved in the death of a loved one. And when such events are reported in the news, there’s usually a short period of public interest. But once the episode concludes, that interest subsides and life (and death) goes on as before.

Putting aside the efforts of long-standing advocates and opponents of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, sustained engagement by the wider public with these issues is glaringly absent – despite overwhelming public support for reform. And despite the trend of liberalisation overseas. That tide of international reform is likely to soon reach our shores, although we note the recent narrow defeat of the “Death with Dignity” initiative in Massachusetts.

Two things are critical to preparing the ground for a public debate in Australia and to ensuring it is of a high level – public engagement with the available evidence and a rational, honest dialogue.

Public engagement with evidence

Arguments about autonomy and the sanctity of life in this debate are well understood, at least on some level, by the wider public. But a likely gap in public awareness is the significant body of empirical evidence gathered over many years on the operation of permissive jurisdictions, such as the Netherlands.

Understanding what the data are saying can be difficult. Indeed, different commentators point to the same statistics in reaching diametrically opposed conclusions. But how this data are used influences the honesty of the dialogue. A public debate that considers the data and its interpretations provides the opportunity to assess common concerns about voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, such as “slippery slopes” and the possible harm to vulnerable people.

Honest engagement would also allow a more nuanced assessment of the blanket claims that are sometimes made by both the advocates and the opponents of reform.

A rational, honest dialogue

Engagement with the available evidence is the precursor for rational dialogue. It would allow for debate that’s based on evidence rather than just on what we believe or simply assert. Although beliefs are a justifiable part of these deliberations, it nonetheless needs to be a debate that’s intellectually curious and genuinely open to both sides’ understanding of the other’s position.

The debate must also be honest – honesty is required from everyone involved or influential in this dialogue. Honesty allows genuine differences to be known and respected, and enables the focus to shift to these points.

It’s particularly important that our politicians are honest. An interesting disconnect in this area is the lack of legislative action in the face of overwhelming public support for reform. It’s not entirely clear why this is so but some commentators suggest it’s due to a fear of the political harm that can come from religious groups who oppose voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide.

A parliamentary bill proposing liberalisation of the law is likely to be decided by a conscience vote. And the electorate is entitled to know how their representative will vote and why. Politicians should be honest in their engagement with this issue, and make clear the basis on which they support or oppose reform. The public needs to question why they fail to do this.

A new opportunity for the debate

The independent, not-for-profit research group Australia21 has today released a background paper that we wrote on how Australia should regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. The goal of the paper is to provide the basis for considering this issue. We hope this heralds a new dawn of engagement, so the wider public – and not just the long-standing opponents and advocates of reform – take part in an sustained debate.

This is a chance to put aside some of the sloganism and rhetoric that sometimes dominate the public and political discourse in this area and instead promote a rational, honest debate that properly considers the empirical evidence about voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide.