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.
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