The left should pause before embracing euthanasia laws

In a decent society, euthanasia would be a basic civil right. More than that, a decent society would consider control over your own death to be as important as, and interconnected with, control over your own life.

The problem is, we don’t live in a decent society.

We live in a society in which most of the old are treated like human waste and a burden. Thousands are condemned to live the last days of their lives in nursing homes that are little better than the poor houses and orphanages of the 19th century.

And we live in an economic system that pushes everyone to conceive of their worth in the most rancid economic terms and to put the future of their family above all personal considerations.

This is a dangerous context in which to legislate a system of “voluntary assisted dying”.

The advocates of euthanasia law reform have powerful arguments. It is a terrible thing to see someone desperate to be freed from the pain of their life denied the right to end it on their own terms.

But there is a difference between supporting the right of a person to die, and creating a structure through which the taking of human life is institutionalised in a medical system that already fails the elderly and the sick in so many ways.

One of the fundamental problems with the “safeguards” that are promised in the laws being debated in the Victorian state parliament is that they are focused on rights and issues of consent.

But the key safeguards needed to avoid euthanasia becoming a means to end life unnecessarily are not those that set the bureaucratic procedures for ensuring meaningful consent. What is needed instead is to change the social conditions faced by the elderly and the sick, and to change the way they are treated by society. Guy Rundle recently wrote at Crikey:

“[I]f a comprehensive [voluntary assisted death] system is to go ahead there should be one major safeguard: universal, free and unlimited top-rate palliative care, for those who want as much life as possible. And that is simply not the case in Victoria at the moment. The health system is underfunded … the best painkillers are not available to everyone, new techniques are slow to be introduced, and the system is class dominated – the rich have access, medical professionals and their friendship networks have access, others don’t.”

That would be a good start. But it is not just a matter of palliative care – the broader conditions of life for the elderly must also be addressed.

First, there is the issue of poverty. The superannuation system, although it has raised the standard of living in retirement for some, has also created a class of hundreds of thousands of poor retirees who are treated as if it is their fault they have not got enough money to scratch out an existence in old age.

A 2016 report on pensioner living standards found that a third of the 1.5 million people reliant on the pension in Australia were living well below the poverty line. It found that “some pensioners are taking drastic measures in order to make ends meet – they are turning off hot water in summer, blending food because they can’t afford a dentist and choosing between food and medication”.

And that is before they become sick or infirm. It’s no secret that the profit-driven aged care system in Australia is, in many cases, producing horrific results. Lynda Saltarelli, in a harrowing submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into elder abuse last year, wrote:

“Over the years, aged-care residents in nursing homes have been raped, robbed, bathed in kerosene, attacked by rodents, suffered injuries or death from other residents, burned to death, strangled, cooked, melted, sedated to death, over-medicated, endured horrific infected pressure sores or choked to death.”

Why wouldn’t some people in this situation think a painless death to be their best possible alternative, or that they would be doing a favour to their family by ending their life?

Social policy that creates that option without changing the social conditions that make criminal treatment of the elderly so widespread is extremely fraught.