Death talk: The Case against Euthanasia

Dean of Medicine Christine Bennett, Professor Margaret Somerville, Dean of Law Michael Quinlan and the Director of the Institute for Ethics and Society, Professor Sandy Lynch.

3 July 2015

The dangers of legalising euthanasia were explored at a public lecture by Professor Margaret Somerville, Founding Director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, hosted by The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Institute for Ethics and Society and the Schools of Law and Medicine in Sydney this week.

Professor Somerville emphasised her concern that requiring doctors to take deliberate steps with the intention of ending a patient’s life would profoundly alter the nature of the medical profession and lead to a loss of community trust in physicians.

She also spoke about the experience of other countries with euthanasia laws “which suggests that, while euthanasia might be introduced to deal with a clearly defined group of persons – such as those suffering from a terminal illness – there is, a seemingly inevitable, expansion of situations where euthanasia will be permitted”.

Professor Somerville stressed the importance of broadening the nature of the debate about euthanasia beyond the individual level and the need to focus on the impact that permitting euthanasia would have at a societal and global level, now and in future generations. Professor Somerville said, in her opinion, it was also essential to address why euthanasia was wrong in itself rather than to allow the debate to solely focus on the risks and benefits of introducing euthanasia.

“Making euthanasia and assisted suicide part of medical practice is not, as pro-euthanasia advocates claim, a small incremental change consistent with interventions that we accept as ethical and legal, such as honouring patients’ refusals of life-support treatment that allow them to die a natural death,” Professor Somerville said.

“Rather, euthanasia is different-in-kind from these interventions including with respect to both the physician’s primary intention and the legal cause of death. Legalising euthanasia would represent a seismic shift in our fundamental societal values, in particular, respect for life in society in general. History will see what we decide about it as having been one of the defining events of the first decades of the 21st century and possibly the entire century.”

In introducing Professor Somerville, Professor Michael Quinlan, Dean of the School of Law, Sydney, said the University recognised that ethics permeated every area of knowledge. “A profound respect for the dignity of every human person is central to what we do here at Notre Dame; it permeates our research, our teaching and our Objects – one of which is providing an excellent standard of pastoral care to our students,” Professor Quinlan said.

The University’s Dean of Medicine, Professor Christine Bennett, said the role and responsibility of doctors in this debate was critical. “The medical profession must focus on excellence in care that, as Professor Somerville said, would kill the pain and suffering, not kill the patient with the pain and suffering. It's not just cures that deserve more research," Professor Bennett said.

Professor Sandy Lynch, the Director of the Institute for Ethics and Society, said Professor Somerville had much to teach us about how we respond to the question of euthanasia. “Her approach emphasises compassion in attending to individuals’ suffering while at the same time urging us not to lose sight of the wider social implications of legalising euthanasia,” Professor Lynch said.

Professor Lynch noted two crucial points in Professor Somerville’s talk: her emphasis on respect for life as foundational to civil society and her reminder to us that “we need to keep asking one another about the kind of society and ‘metaphysical ecosystem’ we want our grandchildren to inherit”.

Audio: Pt 1 | Pt 2

Theresa Kyne: Tel (02) 8204 4141; Mob: 0407 408 177;