Unclear end-of-life concepts cloud euthanasia debate

29 March 2011

A genuine public debate on "legalising euthanasia" can only happen after a clear distinction is made between assisted suicide and euthanasia and the withholding, refusal, or withdrawal of life-sustaining measures, says a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) law academic.

Dr Andrew McGee, whose article on the subject has been published in the international journal, Legal Studies: Journal for the Society of Legal Scholars, said the preparation of a new private members bill for voluntary euthanasia recently announced by the Tasmanian Premier, Lara Giddings, may not reflect public support for such a bill, because the surveys on which the assessment of public opinion was based were flawed.

"It has been claimed that a survey showed 80 per cent of people in Tasmania are in favour of euthanasia, but the Parliamentary report on the bill in which these findings are presented itself concedes that the wording of the survey was confused," Dr McGee said.

"The report expressly states that it is unclear whether respondents considered the withdrawal of, non-commencement of, or refusal of life-prolonging treatments as voluntary euthanasia.

"So this means that respondents to the survey might have merely confirmed their support for withdrawl, withholding or refusal of treatment which is conduct that is already lawful. The results of the survey, therefore, are not a secure basis for changing the law."

Dr McGee said laws in this area were often criticised by the legal profession for being confused and inconsistent.

"For example, a common argument made by proponents of euthanasia is that it is already lawful in some forms, where, for example, a doctor can withhold life-support or switch off a life-support machine," Dr McGee said.

"On this view, it is illogical that administering a lethal dose is unlawful, while withholding and withdrawing life support is permitted.

"But this argument takes for granted that withholding and withdrawing life support really is a form of euthanasia, and so begs the question and only clouds the real issues that need to be debated.

"The issue should simply be whether we should accept that, in some circumstances, it is right to allow people to end their lives early to avoid unbearable pain and suffering. If the answer is 'yes' then we should focus on defining what those circumstances are in a way that does not open the floodgates.

"This should not be confused though with the issue about when doctors might stop prolonging life by withdrawing life-prolonging treatment. The law about life-prolonging treatment is already settled."

He said there was growing public demand for clearly defined legislation on end-of-life decisions.

"People with terminal illnesses want absolute assurance that their loved ones would not be implicated; another reason is that people want the decision to end their own life to stop their suffering legitimised. There is still a stigma attached to suicide," Dr McGee said.

"In a recent British case the director of public prosecutions was instructed to issue guidelines on when prosecutions would be brought against people who might assist another to end their life.

"The confusion in the public mind surrounding the terms or concepts involved needs clarification, so everyone understands fully what is at stake. Only then can we have a proper and meaningful debate."

Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media officer, 07 3138 1841 or

Dr Andrew McGee