The internationally renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl experienced first hand the utter depravity of Auschwitz and Dachau. He knew the immense physical torment, psychological torture and spiritual desolation of those most inhuman of places. They were not called death camps for figurative effect.
Suicide was not unknown among those sent there to suffer grievously and die. Yet, strikingly, Frankl writes in his autobiographical study, Man’s Search for Meaning, of the obligation fellow inmates accepted to frustrate such occurrences: “A very strict camp ruling forbade any efforts to save a man who attempted suicide… Therefore, it was all-important to prevent these attempts from occurring.”
In naming the reason for this paramount calling, Frankl said: “When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task … His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
As words such as “compassion” and “dignity” and “care” become (mis)appropriated by advocates for legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS), I have often thought of Frankl’s enduring insight that human life is essentially a quest for meaning. Advocates of legalised EAS seem unable to grasp the deep meaning to be discovered by a person in that uniquely human project of embracing what Frankl called “the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying”.
It is realistic to acknowledge that some individuals, in the midst of their own mortal suffering, will seek out euthanasia, and that others will be willing to assist in that desperate act. God only knows – and only God can judge – the existential torment that might overwhelm a person, and their loved ones, as they suffer in dying. But when societies start to legislate for this, when they actively chose killing over living as the better way, then much will be lost of our common human project. Legalising EAS is a society giving up on its own people.
Unlike in Britain, where debate happens on a national level, the question of legalising EAS in Australia is a state-based issue. This is because healthcare is the responsibility of the eight states and territories, and not the single Commonwealth. Consequentially, there is a rolling debate on euthanasia across the country, depending on which parliament is considering legislative action at any particular time. The parliament of South Australia, for example, has recently defeated (by a single vote) the 13th attempt at legalising EAS. The State of Tasmania has had several goes at pushing through legalisation. A cross-party bill will be considered in the parliament of New South Wales this year, and parliamentary advocates in Queensland and Western Australia are testing the waters. This creates difficulties in rallying resources and people to counter such developments.
The major battleground, however, is Victoria. It is in this state that, for the first time, a government-sponsored bill will be tabled in the second half of this year, following a parliamentary inquiry’s recommendation to legalise EAS.
Who is supporting this move? There is a socially liberal disposition among many academics and the media, which is being encouraged by a handful of celebrity campaigners and supported by some professional bodies of medical practitioners.
EAS is spoken of by these advocates as “a step forward”, “overdue” and “an idea whose time has come”. It is presented as the morally decent thing to do, demanding of those who resist change the justification of their unenlightened position. Those who do not support EAS are quickly dismissed as either “religiously motivated” or “doctrinaire”.
It is telling that this most basic question of our common humanity is couched by EAS advocates in bygone sectarian images and language. Yet that is the nature of the debate in Australia: euthanasia is but one flank of a wider front in a battle for radical cultural change.
It is in the stories we tell that our humanity will be revealed. Personal stories of suffering are the currency used to validate the wielding of a blunt and crude legislative instrument over the lives of the dying. In telling only of ordeal and despair, advocates of EAS seek to privilege the reduction of a person’s entire life to the end part only. The task is no longer how to support someone in the living of their life, but how to effectively bring about their death. In the legalising of EAS, dying is no longer viewed as a uniquely human dimension of living, but rather as a process to be brought about as proficiently as possible.
Might we not find a more truthful storytelling of our humanity in Viktor Frankl? “And finally,” he wrote, “I spoke [to my comrades] of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. It was in the nature of this sacrifice that it should appear to be pointless in the normal world… But in reality our sacrifice did have a meaning… The purpose of my words was to find a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in that practically hopeless situation.”
To legalise EAS is to give up on telling the story of the full meaning of our lives. This story is not always easily told, but it is a true story in need of listening ears.
The Most Rev Dr Peter Comensoli is Bishop of Broken Bay and the Australian Bishops’ Delegate on Euthanasia