Written by Kathy Thompson
A byproduct of the coronavirus crisis has been the renewed emphasis on society’s protection of its most vulnerable members. Experience has shown that healthy pregnant mothers, unborn babies and children have little to fear from the virus, but that older people and those with underlying health conditions are at higher risk of adverse outcomes if they contract COVID-19 and thus represent the most vulnerable groups in this present pandemic. Coincidentally, these two cohorts – the aged and the physically weak – are those most vulnerable to assisted suicide/euthanasia services and this serves to illustrate a double standard that has become increasingly evident over the past few months.
Australia, COVID-19 and VAD
In Western Australia, for example, coronavirus restrictions were similar to those of other Australian states: restaurants and small businesses were closed, travel was limited, social gatherings and sports were prohibited. Even with a loosening of those restrictions, older people and those with compromised health are still being encouraged to remain at home or work from home in order to protect them from the possibility of contracting COVID-19.
However, in this same state, only a few months prior to the pandemic, a Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Bill passed the state’s lower house with an overwhelming majority. The Government rejected the relative “safeguards” contained in Victoria’s law, allowing any two doctors to approve a request for assisted suicide without a psychiatric assessment and without the need for them to have competence in the condition from which the patient is suffering. This means that those older people who are emotionally vulnerable could potentially bypass the state’s palliative care services and access an early death, irrevocable by definition. What a stark contrast this makes to the idea of imposing strict isolation on the state’s older people, quarantining thousands of able-bodied Western Australians, and closing the entire economy, with all the financial and social risks those actions entail, in order to decrease the risk – only a risk, mind you – of exposure to the novel coronavirus.
The Queensland government has also joined in a push for the “right” to choose the hour of one’s own death. The Queensland Parliament’s health committee recommended in March that assisted dying be legalised, following a year-long consultation and evaluation of more than 4700 submissions. The committee’s report is now before the Queensland Law Reform Commission as they assess the most appropriate way to frame VAD legislation. Sadly, as with abortion law, once an immoral proposal goes before an Australian Law Reform Commission, the introduction of change becomes a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’
VAD proponents tell us that this includes on average seven terminally-ill Queenslanders who currently take their own lives each month. Instead of providing more end-of-life care for such patients, the government is now proposing that these deaths be sanctioned by law.
The hypocrisy of the government’s claim to care about its vulnerable sick and elderly is made manifest in light of its Royal Commission into Elder Abuse. The Commission, in recess due to the coronavirus, released an interim report last October which slammed the systemic neglect to which older people are exposed, particularly in the aged care setting.
The report, entitled, “Neglect”, found that aged care “is designed around transactions, not relationships or care, minimises the voices of people receiving care and their loved ones, is hard to navigate and does not provide information people need to make informed choices about their care, relies on a regulatory model that does not provide transparency or an incentive to improve, and has a workforce that is under pressure and under-appreciated and that lacks key skills.”
Yet, this is the ‘system of neglect’ within which any assisted suicide legislation will operate.
The rank hypocrisy of small-l liberals is also on display in Tasmania, where an assisted-suicide bill was introduced this year – during the pandemic – and despite opposition from local doctors. Mike Gaffney, MLC, the Independent Member for Mersey in the Legislative Council, plans to put forward an End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill in August: the newly-updated bill now includes self-administration and Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) for those living with disabilities. [Mike Gaffney is still accepting feedback on the bill here until July 3rd. HOPE: No Euthanasia has written a detailed analysis of the proposed law’s weaknesses here.]
Incoherently, Mr Gaffney has expressed concern about the plight of older people during the pandemic, stating: “Once we come out of this crisis, there will be a much greater understanding of how we can protect older residents”.
Meanwhile in Victoria, a law to legalise assisted-suicide was passed in late 2017, and enacted in mid-2019. There have been more than 130 applications under the new law, with more than fifty patients proceeding with ending their lives as of February.
Compare this to the number of deaths in the state from COVID-19, which is a mere nineteen. It is deplorable that the entire state was shut down to protect those who are vulnerable to the coronavirus, and yet the state government is actively promoting the intentional deaths of another vulnerable cohort.
It would be a far more fruitful exercise to ask why these fifty people felt they had no option but to take their own lives. Where was their support? Why does the state feel it is under no obligation to protect them? How many were older people who felt their illness would be a burden for their families?
Across the Tasman things are faring little better. In New Zealand, which has already decriminalised abortion under cover of the pandemic, citizens will have the final say on a new euthanasia law in a referendum. The End of Life Choice Bill passed late last year but will not go ahead unless it is triggered by the referendum, which will be held alongside the country’s elections.
The bill has been controversial from the beginning, with most of the record 39,000 submissions opposed to legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide. More than one hundred amendments which were put forward by dissenting MPs were rejected. Last April, an urgent court hearing was sought by Hospice New Zealand, a prominent hospice care provider, to determine if the group would be free to exercise a conscientious objection to assisted dying without penalty under the proposed law.
The situation in Canada where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legal for some time, resembles that of Victoria. In March this year, thirty-three patients died from COVID-19, whereas there were 199 assisted suicides. According to the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, such deaths have increased since the pandemic began, with some patients preferring to take their own lives than risk contracting the coronavirus.
American Governors had one job
A look at some statistics from the US exposes huge variations in the care of older people during this pandemic. It also exposes the rank hypocrisy of leaders such as Cuomo, who like to portray themselves as humanitarian giants while simultaneously promoting abortion to full term.
As of May 16, patients and staff in long-term aged-care facilities accounted for one third of the USA’s COVID-19 death toll. In fourteen states, that figure was half of the total. Despite data from the earlier outbreaks in Asia and Europe which suggested that older people were particularly vulnerable to the virus, Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York and Phil Murphy, Governor of New Jersey gave similar directives, which required nursing homes to take in COVID-19 patients from hospitals, at the end of March. To ensure patients weren’t discriminated against, the instructions forbade staff from the aged-care facilities from even asking if the incoming patients had tested positive for COVID-19. Cuomo stuck with his plan for six weeks, leading to 5000 deaths in homes in his state. His own government confirmed that one-third of the official figures were in nursing homes.
By contrast, the Governor of Florida put into place protections for older people as the virus reached American shores. Governor Ron de Santis ensured that staff at long-term care homes rejected COVID-19 patients so that other patients weren’t put at risk. The resulting death-rate at these facilities in Florida averaged at just over one per home, or 750 for this demographic in the state.
Involving families: the ultimate betrayal
Kevin Yeoll and Theo Boer at Spiked Online make the point that while euthanasia providers shut down during the COVID-19 panic, hospice workers remained open. It would seem that the “urgent and essential” service of ending the lives of the vulnerable is suddenly less essential when health workers’ lives are deemed to be at risk. By contrast, the hospice workers’ commitment makes it crystal clear that this life-affirming service has its patients’ best interests at heart.
Ever creative, proponents of assisted suicide have found a way to ensure the demise of the vulnerable without any risk to their own safety: by enlisting the help of family members. This is a straightforward task in jurisdictions such as the US where a drug compound can be blended with water or juice to create a lethal cocktail. Despite this method being less safe, slower and less effective than a lethal injection – which can only be administered by a health professional – it has obvious appeal for those who do not want to risk potential exposure to the coronavirus. However, these attempts to abolish suffering for the dying will only increase the burden on those left behind.
The fact that this is an option at all harkens back to those legislators responsible for enacting VAD laws in the first place. Where the practice is legal in the United States, there is no requirement for the presence of a health care provider during an assisted suicide.
With the advent of family involvement, the buck is passed by yet another degree and Socrates’ wrong-headed notion of noble death becomes further entrenched in our culture. We can expect to see consistency in the protection of life for older people and for the vulnerable only when lawmakers realise that suffering is unavoidable and redemptive.