Would allowing voluntary euthanasia permit “killing” and disrespect life, or give doctors and family the power to respect the wishes of the terminally ill?
Voluntary euthanasia is a contentious issue, and one that dominated Q&A on Monday night.
The panel — which included senators Penny Wong and Mitch Fifield, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, author Nikki Gemmell and ethics expert Margaret Somerville — didn’t all see eye-to-eye on the issue, but did all agree it is an emotional one.
Professor Somerville, who is opposed to voluntary euthanasia, said legalising it could lead to a slippery slope where requirements get relaxed as time goes on.
“Legalising doctors being able to take the lives of their patients, inflicting death intentionally is so dangerous that we shouldn’t allow it,” she said.
“Your death doesn’t affect just you. Your death is a social event. It affects your family, it affects your community.
“If what we’re doing in society is changing the law to allow this type of — putting it bluntly, killing — then it is a seismic shift in our values as a society, and it doesn’t uphold respect for life at a societial level.”
Having authored a book about her mother’s suicide, Ms Gemmell’s connection to the issue was personal.
“[My mother] died a very bleak and lonely and desolate death without any love and without her family around her because she was trying to protect us,” she said.
“She was a passionate advocate of euthanasia and wanted the situation to change in Australia so that she could pass away peacefully in a room brimming with love, surrounded by love.”
Senator Fifield steered clear of expressing support for voluntary euthanasia, but said “space in the law” was a good thing.
“I’m not saying that you should consciously, as a medical professional, set about a path that leads to someone’s death,” he said.
“What I’m saying is that there are ways that a medical professional can legitimately respect the wishes of a patient and that the way that those legitimate care options manifest themselves can be in different timeframes.”
A Q&A audience member suggested that voluntary euthanasia could be an example of people longing to be in control of “every aspect” of their lives — a sentiment Professor Somerville agreed with.
“Instead of [death] being a mystery, you make it into a problem and you seek a solution to the problem — which is a lethal injection,” she said.
But Bragg accused Professor Somerville of “asking us all to tolerate suffering”.
“A few years prior to her becoming terminally ill … [my mum] made it absolutely clear to me she didn’t really want to be an infirm person and had told the doctor to please not resuscitate her when she was on her last couple of days.
“I made a decision to not extend her life and it gave me comfort … I was able to assist her to get what she ultimately wanted.”
A ‘political solution’ needed in Syria
The Q&A panel also discussed the potential fallout of the United States’ missile strikes in Syria, in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks allegedly carried out by President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces.
Both Liberal Senator Fifield and Labor Senator Wong said the strikes were an appropriate response to the chemical weapons attack.
“There were innocents who were killed, and that demands a response,” Senator Fifield said.
A Q&A audience member asked if the Australian Government was confident with the choices being made in Syria.
“If we have learnt anything from Iraq, that is removing a dictator like Assad from power, it only creates a vacuum from which terror groups like ISIS are born,” the audience member said.
Both Senator Fifield and Senator Wong said ultimately a “political solution” is needed in Syria, but the self-described progressive Bragg raised concerns about the response America could face from Syria and Russia.
“I feel very uncomfortable with someone like Trump with his finger on the trigger,” Bragg said.
“We have to have confidence the leader of our coalition has not just Syria’s best interests at heart, but the best interests of the neighbouring countries.”