Facebook can be useful. Browsing through its weekly birthday update, I learned that Nick Tonti-Filippini, a bioethicist who serves on various Australian government committees and teaches at a Catholic institute in Melbourne, turns 55 today. Some of those years must have gone slowly for him, as he is chronically ill. Fortunately, he has the training to analyse his difficulties with critical detachment. So his reflections on euthanasia, whose publication in the local media today coincides with the celebration, are worth passing on.
He begins with a description of his condition:
I am chronically ill with a progressive rheumatoid auto-immune disease that destroyed my kidneys and causes inflammation around the lungs, inner chest walls and heart, ischaemic heart disease and peripheral neuropathy. I have been dependent on dialysis for 20 years and I have undergone 15 angioplasties and the placement of eight stents to recover some blood flow after the failure of coronary bypass surgery.
Nonetheless, he says, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not the answer to his illness. In support of his contention he offers three arguments. First, Nick says, fear of being dependent can be a powerful motivation to seek euthanasia:
The fear of being a burden is a major risk to the survival of those who are chronically ill. If euthanasia were lawful, that sense of burden would be greatly increased, for there would be even greater moral pressure to relinquish one’s hold on a burdensome life.
Second, the existence of a euthanasia option would undermine the development of better palliative care facilities. This notion is supported by many disability activists. They say that it spreads subtle and widespread expectation that death must be better than disability. “If the legalization of assisted suicide continues, I believe the rank and file will some day see nothing wrong with hastening the deaths of many people,” writes disability expert Dr Carol J. Gill. “They will stand by and do nothing to stop it and will endorse the policies and institutions that advance it – not because they are evil people but because it will no longer be evil in our culture to do so. It will be compassionate, respectful, routine.”
Third, Nick argues that no legislation will ever ensure that there can be no abuse. “Legislation that permits euthanasia could never be made safe for those of us who have serious chronic illnesses, because the essence of such legislation is to make respect for our lives contingent upon the strength of our will to survive.” The fact that euthanasia has been rejected in six countries over the past year (by my count), supports this. Committee after committee, in the UK, the UK, France and Australia has found that it is impossible to reconcile legalised euthanasia with the government’s responsibility to defend the disabled, aged and disadvantaged. Since Oregon legalized assisted suicide in 1994, other American states have it debated it again and again. Between January 1994 and March 2011, there had been 122 legislative proposals in 25 states. All bills that are not currently pending were either defeated or languish in committees.
Three solid arguments from a well-informed academic with personal experience. You’d think that his insights would be treated with respect.
They weren’t. Comments on his article were running about 5 to 1 in favour of legalised euthanasia, and nearly all of them were passionately, gut-wrenchingly, venomous.
Coming to grips with his arguments was not on his readers’ agenda. They just wanted to make their own choice. As “Dreamer” put it,
“I don’t see it as anyone’s business but mine if I chose euthanasia. Religious ratbags and goodie-two-shoes included. Mind your own bloody business and keep your noses out of my affairs.”
Although Nick’s arguments were entirely secular, he was repeatedly slammed for being a Christian. In one all-too-typical comment, “Susan” noted:
“What a nerve to commit people to absolute agony in the name of your religion. And the slur against good people who want to end their terminal suffering is abhorrent. Why should the terminally ill be put up on your cross and made to suffer your torment? You have no right to choose the death or torture for others. If you want a death on a cross, well climb up yourself, but by God do not put others on it, especially the dying.”
The underlying philosophy was a rough-and-ready utilitarianism – that the value of life is the sum of its pleasures. As “Claudius” put it,
“Quality of life is more important than quantity of life, and euthanasia is a superior outcome to ineffective palliative care.”
And on and on and on.
No one expects internet comments to be balanced and thoughtful, but the vituperation in today’s comments was unsettling. They reveal four things about euthanasia and assisted suicide. First, that support for euthanasia is so visceral that it defies reasoned discussion. Second, that it is so me-centred that every argument about its community impact will hit a brick wall. Third, from a utilitarian point of view, Christianity is a abominable force for evil. Fourth, that the notion of meaningful suffering is incomprehensible.
All this suggests that clashes between traditional human dignity and the debased utilitarianism which characterises public debate in Australia are all but insoluble. Ultimately the problem is that the side which sees meaning in suffering is willing to reason it out. The other side isn’t.
Solving conundrums like this is why people like Nick Tonti-Filippini are needed in public life. Happy birthday, Nick. Many more of ‘em.