‘Don’t sleepwalk into euthanasia’, Australia warned

Australians should learn from the mistakes of other countries and not legalise euthanasia, a world-renowned ethicist has said.

Professor Margaret Somerville fears that once euthanasia and assisted suicide are legalised they will be impossible to control.

Her concerns come amid reports that the government in Victoria plans to introduce legislation on the matter this year. A similar debate will take place in the New South Wales Parliament.

Prominent

In 2004, Somerville won the inaugural UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science for her important contributions to the ethical and legal aspects of medicine and science.

She recently returned to Australia from Canada, where she was a prominent voice in the fight against legalising assisted suicide.

“Wherever it has been legislated there are very serious problems”, she said.

In the first seven months of the legalisation of assisted suicide in Quebec, there were a recorded 262 doctor-assisted deaths. In eight per cent of cases it was revealed that doctors had not complied with the law.

Complacent

“Now when the law is brand new and you still can’t get doctors to comply with it, what hope have you got once complacency sets in?” Dr Somerville said.

She added “one of the things that pro-euthanasia people argue is that euthanasia or assisted suicide will be rare. Well, 262 cases in just seven months is not rare”.

She calculated that if the rate of cases of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Belgium and the Netherlands were applied to Australia there would be around 6,000 such deaths every year.

‘Trivialised’

“The case for euthanasia has been made by making it seem harmless”, said Somerville.

262 cases in just seven months is not rare.

Prof Margaret Somerville

Professor Theo Boer, who formerly worked for the Dutch government as part of a euthanasia watchdog, said it was hard to support the claim that the law in the Netherlands was working well.

And Professor Aaron Kheriaty, who specialises in psychiatry, said there are serious problems with the laws in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal since 1997.

Among other concerns, he highlighted how, after a period of decline in suicide rates in the 1990s, the number of suicides rose dramatically in the following decade.