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Monday 08 November 2010

Euthanasia: Going Nowhere?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 27th September 2010

Across the Tasman, the euthanasia debate seems to be rumbling back into life if it ever subsided in the first place. Still, there will probably be no real progress.

Why? Put simply, it's a lesson in social movement arithmetic. Social movements may attract mass support, but they only gain legislative traction if they pay heed to amenable social scientists and medical practitioners and evidence-based research substantiates their case. In the case of the euthanasia reform lobby, the Australian (and New Zealand) Medical Associations are implacably opposed to decriminalisation of voluntary euthanasia. In those international instances where decriminalisation has occurred, medical practitioners have either declared neutrality or adopted protocols, practices and procedures to regulate the process of voluntary euthanasia. Without that neutrality or practical support, the euthanasia reform lobby will experience opposition from an influential source of professional evidence-based research and opinion. Until that subsides, their task is pointless.

Added to which, there's another factor that militates against their ultimate success. The reform movement is divided between two factions. One of them is committed to legislative reform and regulated access to voluntary euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. The other is more inclined toward illegal provision of 'suicide drugs' like Nembutal, imported from Mexico.

It isn't an issue that particularly raises interest amongst lesbians and gay men, not even PLWAs or breast cancer survivors. For the most part, they seem to be far more concerned with procuring access to palliative pharmaceuticals through Pharmac and Medsafe's sometimes glacial approval processes. Still, these pharmaceuticals prolong life and enable active citizenship and working lives, as opposed to loss of autonomy and dependency. In those circumstances where it has arisen in the context of gay men's lives, it is either historical, as in the context of Ray Gosling's false admission that he had assisted the suicide of a suffering PLWA; or in the context of other health issues than HIV/AIDS, as with a gay couple who availed themselves of the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Zurich, in the context of pancreatic cancer.

Oddly enough, lesbians seem to be absent from the euthanasia debate. Straight women are active participants, and in several cases across the western world, female protagonists have taken the initiative in striving for reform. However, they all seem to have been straight women, sometimes with gay male friends (like Canada's Sue Rodriguez and former New Democrat MP Svend Robinson, or Britain's Dr Anne Turner and her gay son Edward). There seems to be no reason why this should be the case, given that lesbians suffer the same age-related infirmities and life-threatening medical conditions as their straight counterparts.

It's not difficult to see the sense in Julia Gillard's obvious strategy in allowing the reopening of the debate. Liberal Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott is a diehard conservative Catholic on this and many other issues. Unlike the others, though, this has the potential to drive a wedge between Abbott and more moderate Australians, given strong public support for voluntary euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. It may not end up neccessarily resulting in legislative reform, although it will weaken the influence of the Australian Christian Right on this front. With any luck, it may erode their standing on issues of greater import to our Australian counterparts, like the federal same-sex marriage ban.

Exit International:
Dignity New Zealand:

Not Recommended:
Right to Life Australia:

Craig Young - 27th September 2010

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