The Euthanasia Debate: Will Democracy in Australia lead to Bad Law?

Christopher Pearson, in his article in The Australian, hoped that in 2011,

a grand coalition of the major faiths, assisted by some heavy-weight moral philosophers, will see the campaign against euthanasia as one they can’t afford to lose.

Certainly it is a campaign that we cannot simply leave up to “public opinion”. I know that sounds very anti-democratic of me, but sometimes just deciding an important legal and moral issue on the basis of “opinion polls” is very dangerous and can lead to very bad laws.

This point was driven home with a (somewhat triumphalistic) article in today’s edition of The Age, which trumpeted “Euthanasia wins 75% support”. Aside from the veracity or reliability of the poll itself, which was conducted by the Australian Institute (we could, for example, ask about the exact question put to the survey participants), we need to ask if this is the way we want law to be developed in Australia.

By coincidence, I have just been listening to an old podcast of an ABC National Radio Sunday Night program on this very issue. The issue of the roll of public opinion was raised in that discussion. One of the points raised by the program is that the death penalty also consistently attracts a majority support in Australia too, but for many reasons our governments have judged that this would not be a good thing to reintroduce.

Interestingly the first person to call into the program was a man who said he supported Euthanasia, and then went on to demonstrate that he really didn’t know what Euthanasia was and was not. This level of ignorance of the issues involved (which is very high in our community) means that polls like these are misleading. Did the poll participants, for instance, know that the bill proposed by the Greens for NSW included a clause about mandatory referal similar to that which is in the Victorian abortion law?

Mr Pearson is quite right. This is a debate in which all people in Australia must become thoroughly informed, and we need the contributions of people of faith and philosophers, as well as people who work in medicine, nursing and palliative care, so that our laws continue to be made on solid ground.

I came out of an ecclesial community in which everything was decided “democratically”, ie. by majority opinion. It sounds good as an idea to those for whom democracy is the highest form of good government, but when translated into questions about what is right and good can lead to very bad decisions.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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5 Responses to The Euthanasia Debate: Will Democracy in Australia lead to Bad Law?

  1. Peter says:

    The trouble with any form of government is that you assume that the people with the authority to change anything have been trained to think and to base their decisions on what moves towards the good according to what they believe is a coherant argument based on a solid foundational premise.

    We all know that politicians have almost always fudged moral boundaries for what they call ‘pragmatic’ reasons. The difference seems to be that in the past we treated such things with contempt for the person or at least a cynical acceptance that sometimes men are bad. These days we accept this moral fudging under the guise of ‘pragmatism’ as the norm and criticise instead those who act on the basis of principle. The papers seem outraged when someone proposes a position which is not shared by a poll. This would be fine if the voters in these polls were reliably informed, trained to think logically and critically and base their decisions on the good of all Aussies, not just their own pay cheque or holiday conditions.

  2. Peter says:

    Ignore italics. The HTML code didn’t switch it off.

  3. matthias says:

    I think that if prolife people lose this battle,we will see the slippery slope become a far more acute angle. As usual the Greens have made themselves again the Party of death to quote Louise of Purcell’s chicken voluntary blog fame- by the way where are you ??

  4. Tony says:

    Last September these quotes were attributed to our Julia:

    Ms Gillard also feels “conflicted” about whether euthanasia should be legalised.

    “I find it almost impossible to conceptualise how there would be appropriate steps and safeguards,” she told Network Ten.

    “Intellectually, people should be able to make their own decision, but I find it very hard to conceptualise how we would have the sort of safeguards that we would need if we did say that euthanasia was legal.”

    Some four out of five Australians want the federal government to allow the territories to legalise euthanasia, according to a News Limited poll.

    Ms Gillard said it was a matter for individuals, “not looking at the newspaper polls”.

    It does seem to me that the real difficulty of convincing legislators that clear, simple safeguards are possible is going to remain a stumbling block for any widespread legal reform in regard to liberalising euthanasia and that’s not a deeply philosophical argument.

    Aside from the veracity or reliability of the poll itself, which was conducted by the Australian Institute (we could, for example, ask about the exact question put to the survey participants) …

    The Age article you reference gives a pretty strong indication as to what was asked: ’75 per cent of people agreed that, if someone with a terminal illness who is experiencing unrelievable suffering asks to die, a doctor should be allowed to assist them to die‘. On that basis the headline ‘Euthanasia wins 75% support’ is a little … err … ‘journalistic’ but sub-editors (not to mention blogsters!) wouldn’t go for something like ‘75% of respondents agree to euthanasia in extreme cases’ or, maybe, ‘Euthanasia supported in this case or that case’ or whatever.

    The Australia Institute describes itself as ‘the country’s most influential progressive think tank’, but that shouldn’t preclude it from legitimacy if its methodology is reputable.

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