February 13th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Democratic Progressive Party ousts Kuomintang

CANBERRA OBSERVED Barnaby Joyce: enigma, loose cannon, deputy PM?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Temporary protection visa holders left exposed

ENVIRONMENT Bob Carter, RIP: mythbuster and fact finder extraordinaire

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Farewell, religious liberty, farewell, conscience

EDITORIAL Syria: U.S. backdown opens door to peace talks

ECONOMICS Bubble has burst on globalisation project

EUTHANASIA Media drives sales in the death market

CULTURE What does a good music review sound like?

CULTURE Can we put a rocket under religious Sci-fi?

CINEMA A melancholy heroism: Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie

BOOK REVIEW Partial but thorough

BOOK REVIEW Brutality of battle


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Media drives sales in the death market

by Paul Russell

News Weekly, February 13, 2016

Last October, an elderly couple from the Melbourne suburb of Brighton were found dead in their home. Sad to say, it was the third “couple” or “double” suicide covered in the media within a few short weeks, the other two being in my hometown of Adelaide.

A voice for sanity:

Professor Ian Hickie.

The Australian news media has a reasonably good reputation for sensitivity and consideration when reporting on such matters. Unfortunately, at least one major Australian newspaper publisher seems to disregard those sensitivities when the story is no longer news but rather an opportunity to push their editorial line in support of euthanasia and the Nitschke line on so-called “rational suicide”.

Pat and Peter Shaw committed suicide in their own home. Their three daughters, who knew the date, time and intention of their parents, were away from the house at the time. It was common knowledge that Peter Shaw, at least, was an enthusiastic member of Exit International; the article suggesting that he killed himself in his shed using Exit-type equipment.

Sadly, as I alluded above, double-suicide pacts are no longer the isolated cases they once were. There have even been recorded instances of double euthanasia in Belgium, where the partner who was not ill could not imagine living without the other. From The Age article, it seems that this Victorian case was different. Both had deteriorating health – but neither was terminal and, from the report, neither could be said to be suffering unbearably.

In other words, it is unlikely that either would have qualified under the usual form of euthanasia and assisted -suicide bills.

The article expends a great deal of effort and column space in painting the picture of a vivacious and loving couple with stellar intellects and interests, including trekking, mountain climbing and hiking to exotic places. Even so, as a biography I can’t imagine it would hold the same interest for The Age’s readers if it were not for the suicide angle. In fact, I doubt that it would have been published at all.

So, how does it serve the pro-euthanasia cause? Quite frankly, it doesn’t. But, then again, if it is emotion and neither logic nor ethics that we rely on, perhaps I’m wrong.

Short version, folks. Sad as it is, and as much of a problem you or I or anyone might have with what the Shaw’s did, they did not, as far as we know, commit any offence. They killed themselves with apparent ease. Their children were sufficiently removed to be appropriately beyond suspicion of assisting. There was a proper investigation. Case closed.

The three children told The Age that they respected their parents’ choice and feel strongly that suicide could be rational. They also said that, “their parents should not have had to risk prosecution to die together at the time of their choosing. Nor should they have had to be alone for the legal protection of their family.”

The criminal code prohibition on assisting in suicide is not about protec­ting the family, it is about protecting vulnerable people from being coaxed or coerced to their suicide death. Sometimes it may be a protection from the family (though that is clearly not the case here).

Daughter Kate belled the cat: “It shouldn’t be so difficult for rational people to make this decision.”

Poster folk for suicide

The whole reason for the article is to promote the idea that suicide can be rational, perhaps even desirable. A loving, smart and vivacious couple serving as poster folk to normalise what has for millennia been rightly stigmatised for the protection of fragile and vulnerable people: suicide – self-killing.

Even if some people kill themselves supposedly rationally, The Age and the likes of Philip Nitschke have failed to answer the obvious objection. What about those who are not rational but whose mental state is such that they think that they are and who therefore find an imprimatur for their suicide in this argument? No suicide hotline at the end of the article can absolve anyone implicated of responsibility.

Moreover, I do not accept the inference that, because the Shaws were intelligent and learned, or because they left notes saying so, their decision to suicide was, indeed, rational.

The article itself provides some clues. They were clearly scared witless of deterioration, decrepitude and the loss of independence that those early aches, pains and memory problems of advancing age sometimes presage.

Peter Shaw in a 2007 letter to the editor of The Age, wrote: “Our reason for suicide may be anticipation of pain and incompetence, but quite likely just a sense of a life accomplished and coming to a conclusion.”

The article screams the former; which makes the idea of a “finished life” sound inauthentic.

Shaw’s letter went on: “We are not interested in palliative care, and strongly resent do-gooders placing obstacles in our way.” The article qualified the “do-gooders” as “religious” people “with the superstitions of medieval inquisitors”. Cue Monty Python!

What obstacles? The only real obstacles are the laws that prohibit the importation of lethal substances and the law prohibiting people from assisting; both make complete sense and both are maintained by the states variously, and not the churches.

As if that were not enough, Fairfax Media published a follow-up piece by the same author only days later, surprise, surprise, based on a fulsome endorsement of rational suicide by none other than Nitschke himself.

Thankfully, on this second occasion, a contrary voice was included in comments from Professor Ian Hickie, a psychiatrist and mental-health campaigner, who said he “thought it was tragic that people wanted to ‘check out’ of life because of myths and negative stereotypes about ageing, pain relief, hospitals and how the health system treated elderly people.”

The article read: “[Professor Hickie] said while some people may not have a mental illness when they end their own life, Exit International’s approach to teaching people about suicide was reaching vulnerable people who could, with further assistance, live a longer, enjoyable life.

“Professor Hickie, of the Brain and Mind Centre, said Australian authorities needed to work on policies and resources to promote healthy ageing with a focus on getting the right care and support to people so they do not feel like a burden and live as well as they can in their later years.

“He said people considering suicide or families discussing the issue should examine what is underpinning people’s motivation. Is it fear of being a burden? Is it fear of a lack of care?”

Message of normalisation

What’s the take-home message from all this? Sadly, it is likely to be that those who decide to live as best they can and die as best they can in good care, come what may, are seen as either selfish, irresponsible or somehow lacking in capacity. These articles normalise suicide for the elderly.

What gets hidden in the layers of emotion and fear peddling is the deeper reality that euthanasia and assisted suicide are really not about the fabled “last resort” situations of “unbearable pain”.

Nitschke himself identifies this in his call for the decriminalisation of the importation of suicide drugs for those over 70 years of age, and in the tweet where he makes it clear that euthanasia laws would not have helped in the rational suicide of the Shaws.

But then, as ever, this isn’t really about supporting a push for euthanasia laws. It is a simple three-stage sales technique: create the need; provide the solution; and make the sale.

For help or information, call Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.

Paul Russell is executive director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide (NoEuthanasia.org.au), and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition International.

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