Australia’s dying dignity


An empty hospital bed. Photographer: Elo Vazquez.

“If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don’t use it, but don’t deny the right to me to use it.”

Those were some of the last words of Robert Dent, a Northern Territorian who suffered a long battle with prostate cancer until he became the first person in the world to be euthanised under a statute law. He passed away peacefully on the 22nd of September, 1996. But few fellow Australians have been legally afforded the same mercy. In a rare reminder of the territories’ sovereignty-status, the federal Parliament responded months later by passing laws to overturn those created by the government in the Northern Territory which allowed physicians to assist those who wished to die. Since then, thousands of people have suffered slow, miserable deaths where they otherwise might not have wanted nor needed to.

One such person was Laurie Strike, who passed away in Perth last month after suffering a lengthy treatment for terminal cancer. Earlier this year, he had appealed to the public and our politicians to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

Although the Western Australian parliament have not debated the issue since 2010, other state parliaments have had more recent legislative proposals. Before the state election in Tasmania, voluntary euthanasia legislation was narrowly defeated despite favourable public opinion polls. In South Australia, independent MP Bob Such had, in 2012 and 2013, drafted a private members’ bill for voluntary euthanasia. Before the state election, he admitted that his quest was unlikely to be successful, though given his new political leverage in the hung parliament his chances may improve. (Sadly, however, in macabre irony, he has recently fallen seriously ill.) Religious groups and others opposed to euthanasia have vigorously lobbied legislators on all occasions.

So why do anti-euthanasia campaigners force people like Mr Strike to suffer? Many would appeal to human rights, such as the OHCHR’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6(1) states that: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.”

One moral argument is that Mr Strike shouldn’t have been able to die with a physician’s assistance, since he was a human being and therefore had a right to life which, in this case, would not have been protected. However this ignores the very essence of what we mean in this context when we talk about a ‘human being’. In fact, merely belonging to a particular species of animal, Homo sapiens, is rather meaningless in moral terms. It’s truer to say we value the presence of particular qualities in human beings more than we value membership to a particular species. Do we really hold that the value of a human being is the same if we compare someone who is permanently brain-dead and someone who is not? Most would consider the brain-dead human being to actually be dead, despite the fact that, in medical terms, the organs and tissue are being kept alive. Clearly, then, when people judge the brain-dead human being as dead, they are actually judging the capacities and qualities of that human being: their ability to communicate, to understand their surroundings, to find enjoyment in life, and so on. All these things come with being a person, not merely a human being.

It is truer, therefore, to say that every person has the inherent right to life, not that every human being does. Though if Mr Strike was a person, then doesn’t the same problem raised by those opposed to euthanasia remain? Aren’t we still depriving him of life or failing to protect his right to life? The Australian Human Rights Commission, upon examining the euthanasia laws passed by the Northern Territory in 1996, say “no, it does not violate our human rights“. They came to this conclusion partly for two reasons: first, the 1996 legislation had limited scope (it only applied to terminally-ill patients who wanted to die); and second, extensive statutory safeguards were put in place to prevent abuses (protecting patients who did not want to die).

However, even if we didn’t accept this finding, how is it that we can say to have established a ‘right to life’ without giving individuals a right to control their life, including how it ends? A ‘right to life’ cannot be meaningful if one cannot exercise that right in ways which make it, in the full sense, a ‘life’. Said differently, what good is a life you don’t have power over? Or one in which you suffer unbearably, hopelessly, and without any or much enjoyment? These might fall under the literal definition of a ‘life’, but to say that they all, irrespective of their features, have the same quality is to deny the factual differences. To further say that individuals must accept what others ascribe to them as the values which constitute a life – or, as is sometimes said, a life worth living – is to say that you know how to live someone’s life better than they do. While we might be able to argue for this in the case of children, how can we reason the same for a fully mature, capable adult of sound mind? Simply, we can’t.

For this reason, some of those opposed to legalising voluntary euthanasia might agree that perhaps euthanasia itself isn’t necessarily immoral, but rather in legalising it we risk abuses and these risks outweigh the benefits. This should be a concern of any responsible community wishing to legislate on these issues, but is largely an empirical question. Being that this matter is far from uncontroversial it is unsurprising then to find a multitude of interpretations of what data is available to us regarding abuses of voluntary euthanasia laws. That said, almost all authors admit two things: (1) that we can never eliminate one hundred percent of the risk; and (2) that some level of risk can be mitigated by legal and practical safeguards. The question is whether enough of the risk can be prevented so as to justify the benefits. We can’t always stop the occasional corrupt cop or malicious or incompetent doctor, but we can make reasonable and serious attempts to avoid foreseeable harms, just like we could for euthanasia laws. For example, we can require psychiatric assessment of patients who request euthanasia (to ensure the person is of sound mind and not just depressed); we can require that multiple, independent physicians agree on the diagnosis, prognosis, and current state and nature of suffering in the patient (to minimise physician-related errors or misjudgements); we can require that requests for euthanasia are repeated, sustained over time, and that only the patient herself is involved in these requests (to prevent unscrupulous friends or family influencing the patient); and so on. It is also worth pointing out that if any abuses have occurred, it is not automatically a strike against voluntary euthanasia laws generally but rather only one statute or perhaps its related institutions and legal or medical practices. Such abuses – again, if they have occurred – may have been preventable given a better policy.

As pragmatic asides, there are also some shared benefits for those left behind after someone dies by voluntary euthanasia. Two prominent benefits were illustrated in mock adverts created as part of the ABC’s television program ‘Gruen Planet’, which analysed advertising practices and trends. In one of the show’s segments, agencies compete to sell the unsellable, and were once asked to persuade Australians that we should make euthanasia compulsory for seniors by the age of 80.

“I never met my granny, because she lived very far away,” begins one advert with a little girl sitting alone, clutching a family photo. “I would have made more time somehow,” a man says about his mother passing away. It’s almost universally true that people put off seeing their relatives or parents. None of us normally intend to, it’s just that we get caught up in our day-to-day lives. When terminally ill patients go through years of treatment and their health very gradually declines, it can be just as easy for family members to miss their opportunity to spend significant time together. Giving these terminally ill patients the option of setting a definite time to die not only gives back some small sense of control in a situation they have had no control over, but it also gives them and their families specified time to spend wisely and meaningfully.

Where the first advert spoke to emotion, the second speaks to reason. “With resources stretched to the limit and the elderly living longer, the time is fast approaching when we have to make some tough decisions,” says an elderly gentleman as he leans out of his hospital bed. He walks down the hall to the maternity wing, looking into a room with a mother caring for her newborn. “Perhaps that time is now.”

While voluntary euthanasia should, in its primary focus, be about the patient, we cannot deny that there are some economic and emotional benefits for those left behind. Being aware of these benefits, including those which may motivate abuses, is vital to assessing any legislative proposal on this issue. Prescribing morals or crying wolf without even hearing a howl, however, is irresponsible, and causes women and men like Mr Strike to suffer unnecessarily long, painful deaths. Let’s not let our common dignity bear a similar fate.


Sport isn’t rightly a ‘right’


Google doodle celebrating diversity and the Winter Olympics as seen on Friday 7 February 2014.

Controversy, corruption, and countless backlogs of construction work has given some the impression that Russia wasn’t ready to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Western journalists who started arriving earlier this week were quick to tweet of the dangers and peculiarities of reporting from what could have been confused with the Developing World.

But this is more funny than angering. What really has provoked some is Moscow’s politics, specifically its opposition to gay rights. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently passed laws against and judgement upon gay people, banning “homosexual propaganda.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently condemned the attacks in a speech to the Olympic Committee, saying that “many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against the prejudice.”

It was unsurprising, then, for Google to make their own political statement via their famous Google doodles. However, to emphasise their point, a quote from the Olympic Charter was put under the search bar.

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play,” the quote says.

My contention isn’t with the sentiment of this charter, of course, being an avid supporter of the LGBTQ movement, but I do have an issue with the first sentence: “The practice of sport is a human right.” The innappropriate inflation of what is at best a nice, inoffensive activity to being on par with the right to “life, liberty and security of person” (Article 2 of The Universal Declaration for Human Rights), seems a bit sensationalist. I get it – sports mean a lot to people, and it should mean one heck of a lot more to the organisers of the Olympics! But, if we had to, we could do without sport at the sacrifice of relatively little freedom or enjoyment of life – certainly many young Americans seem to think so.

Perhaps the closest officially recognised human right to a right for sport participation would be Article 24 of the Universal Declaration, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” However it’s a long discus throw from that to saying that the “practice of sport [itself] is a human right.”

Some may think I’m nitpicking, but I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to wording – especially of laws, mission statements, policies, and the like. Whether or not this was a case of clumsiness or actual belief that sport participation is a right, I don’t know. What I’m absolutely certain of, though, is that freedom from slavery and the freedom of expression are more lofty and important ideals to our society than the right to go skiing.

Devastating the devastation of devastating arguments against religion

Roman Catholic monks of the Order of Saint Benedict singing Vespers on Holy Saturday at St. Mary's Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey.

Roman Catholic monks of the Order of Saint Benedict singing Vespers on Holy Saturday at St. Mary’s Abbey in Morristown, New Jersey. (Source: John Stephen Dwyer)

I once was more easily drawn-in by the concourse of religious versus secular debates one could find anywhere from social media to shopping centres. They are debates essential to human flourishing, I think, since they wrestle with the fundamental questions and presumptions of our existence and therefore our living. Not one to normally shy away from argument, I have recently been consciously distancing myself from such conversations, though – especially in the online sphere.

My main reasoning is that the arguments are repetitive and a bore. Nothing new is learned nor gained by either party. An ideal debate is one which refines the positions, though I should note that this does not necessarily mean that either position need be ‘weakened’ in the mind of the debater. But to break my silence in reverence of this argument’s regular and peculiar futility, I wanted to briefly reply to an article refuting some of the common arguments of atheists.

Why has this broken my silence? Quite simply, because I have noted the undeserved traction it has gained with otherwise intelligent, well-meaning Christians in my circle of acquaintances and, dare I admit, friends.

The first claim refuted in the article is that of religion being the primary cause of war. Cited is the authoritative Encyclopedia of Wars, which claims that only some 7% of all recorded wars were driven by religion. Not being a particularly novel statistic to employ in one’s counterargument, it is a simple task for even the most novice of discerning observers to propose the question: By what definition? The definitions, upon closer inspection, are highly specified and unmatched to the common parlance, giving rise to the misapprehension. In effect, the Christian or religious defender deliberately oversimplifies the complexities and motives of ‘war’, reducing it to the single dimension they most commonly complain about anything else being reduced to: religiosity. At best, then, this is a misunderstanding of an academic text and at worst another dubious hypocrisy.

Surprised by its omission, but easily found elsewhere, is the natural extension of this bone of contention: that Stalin and Pol Pot and all these other wicked, godless men committed terrible genocide – in the name of godlessness, is the implication. (More commonly still is the insistence that Hitler was an atheist, despite there no being no clear evidence of his personal beliefs.) Perhaps in this extension, though, is the revelation that the faithful are flocking to a peripheral issue rather than appreciating the salient point: that there is no logical pathway from irreligion to violence, but that there exist many logical pathways from religion to violence. Again, the godly defender tries to have it both ways, claiming her critics are untrustworthy for their simplifications but then wavering into fly-by-night oversimplification herself. Then again, irony has never been more lost than on some believers.

Second on the list of ‘devastating’ arguments reads the claim that religion’s days are numbered due to the progress of scientific inquiry. To refute this, the author quotes the growth figures of major religions (and irreligion) from the World Religion Database. Naturally, these show the rapid growth of religions in the Developing World, particularly Asia. Perhaps in another bout of unappreciated irony (upon entering the realm of objective facts there can be no pseudo-philosophical meandering which rallies any serious offence or defence) in this case is the term projection and its implications appearing entirely lost on the author. I just mentioned exactly why these projections would have to show the rise of specific religions from specific parts of the world which are experiencing specific and unmatched population growth. Hint, hint.

Perhaps what actually is devastating is the lack of family planning options in India and elsewhere due in no small part to the archaic, poverty-binding views espoused by ‘saints’ like Mother Teresa. Perhaps what is devastating is so many’s lack of access to education, incidentally the one thing that repeatedly correlates with irreligiosity and less-fundamentalist religious views.

Penultimately, the topic of the History War of the Dark Ages raises its ugly head. While the Higher or Later Middle Ages were quite amenable to the progress of science, acknowledgement must be made of the stagnation of the Early Middle Ages. Expand one’s study to the entire period, and with it, the social and economic life of its inhabitants, and their many religiously-derived detriments become apparent. To put it plainly, the Dark Ages might not have been as Dark as originally thought, but they were still dark.

The final ‘devastating’ argument presented for ridicule is the outdated Christ myth theory. How laughable indeed. In light of modern evidence it is a truly ridiculous theory, and perhaps the only one worth refuting by this author. Though, in unknowing disparagement, even U.S. comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher fell for this old-hat gimmick. Then again, he also pouts an unhealthy and unethical denialism of vaccine efficacy and safety, and to suggest anyone be altogether infallible would no doubt be asking for a miracle – even by religious standards.

What might have appeared to some as a brief polemic of polemics is actually a hapless list of ill-thought and, at times, strawman defences to some of the genuine questions that bears considering for believers and non-believers alike.

How politicians and the AEC already failed young voters this election

Yet another SBS rant. This time about figures released yesterday by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), who say that 25 per cent of young voters failed to register for the upcoming federal election.

Just my five cents

I’ve recently published an article with SBS.

For international readers, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) is the Australian equivalent of something like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) of the UK. Although we also have another publicly owned news and broadcasting network in Australia known as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which is about on-par.

So, without further ado, here is the article:

Statistical Politics

N.B. You may have to click on some figures to view them properly in your browser.

Yes, those are probably two of the most boring, dry words for some – but, for me, statistics and politics are fun!

Let’s take a look at a recent attempt I saw to consider the effectiveness of what’s now referred to in Australian political circles as the Pacific Solution.


For my international audience, the context is essentially to do with what are often dubbed ‘boat people’ but are essentially just asylum seekers who make their way to Australia from nearby Indonesia. The journey is dangerous and the payments made to smugglers often fund criminal activity. However there is ongoing debate about the factors which influence people to brave the journey; are they ‘pushed’, i.e. by violence or discrimination in their country of origin, or are they ‘pulled’, i.e. drawn to Australia for economic reasons and/or influenced by domestic immigration policies.

The above graph attempts to draw a comparison between asylum seeker applications and the number of Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMAs). However, as a scientist, I was immediately put off by the lack of statistical rigour, and with what I saw as clear outliers/trends which seemed better explained by policy changes.

Now, I will at this point state that I do not have a strong position on this issue currently, mainly because I have only just begun to delve into its complex history. However, I will say that humane treatment of our fellow human beings should always be our first priority.

So, motivated by my disappointment with the above graph, I went about collating and crunching the numbers myself. Someone had beaten me to it some years ago, but as you’ll see, I conclude something very different here.

As a good scientist, I started by formulating my hypotheses:
– null hypothesis: neither global asylum seeker application numbers nor domestic immigration policy changes in Australia influence IMAs;
– alternate hypothesis A: global asylum seeker application numbers affect IMAs;
– alternate hypothesis B: domestic immigration policy changes in Australia influence IMAs;
– alternate hypothesis C: a combination of global asylum seeker application numbers and domestic immigration policy changes in Australia influence IMAs.

I collected data from various official sources, including:
– the UNHCR’s Population Statistics Database and Statistical Yearbooks for asylum seeker application numbers;
– a Parliament of Australia’s Research Publication for IMA and boat arrival figures; and
– a comprehensive list of media and government reports on deaths of asylum seekers who attempted to sail to Australia.

As the first major immigration policy change was enacted by the Keating (Labor) government in 1992 (see Mandatory Detention), and because data becomes scarcer or less reliable the earlier one wishes to start from, I decided to begin my analysis at the year 1988. Due to some domestic data for the year 2012 being incomplete or forthcoming, I decided to finish my analysis at the year 2011. This gave a date-range of 23 years, from 1988 to 2011.

Major immigration policy changes in Australia were then noted and used to break up the date-range according to domestic policy. (N.B. If a policy was enacted between January 1 and June 30 in a given year, a break was made at the beginning of that calendar year, whereas if a policy was enacted between July 1 and December 31, the break was made at the beginning of the next calendar year.)

This resulted in the following date-ranges and their associated policy differences:
– 1988-1991: Pre-Mandatory Detention
– 1992-2001: Mandatory Detention
– 2002-2007: Pacific Solution
– 2008-2011: Suspension of Pacific Solution

Next, one-way ANOVAs with post-hoc Tukey’s honestly significant difference tests were conducted on the collected data with groupings as per the above date-ranges (Figure 1).

Figure 1

This revealed significant differences between the Pacific Solution and Pre-Mandatory Detention eras with the Suspension of Pacific Solution era, which had a significant increase in boat arrivals and IMAs. However, during the same eras, no significant differences were found between the numbers of asylum seeker application for 32 UN-selected developed countries (see Appendix I for a list of these countries, and refer to UNHCR’s Statistical Yearbooks for rationale and discussion).

But surely the number of asylum seekers are associated to some degree with boat arrivals or IMAs? Figure 2 claims not (at least for the overall date-range – both non-transformed and ranked).

Figure 2

Startled, I then looked at each policy era separately, conducting the same analysis (Figure 3).

Figure 3

However the relationships appears inconsistent and largely insignificant. And where significance was gained or approached, it was mild enough (esp. considering the context of the other date-ranges) that it was likely spurious.

As a point of interest, I also plotted the number of IMAs with the number of boat arrivals (Figure 4) to see if even greater overcrowding was occurring at any point. It appears not, fortunately, as the average number of 53 people per vessel (excluding crew) appears to remain fairly stable.

Figure 4

But, as the great tragedy of IMAs (in my opinion) is the loss of life which has and does occur when vessels capsize or sink, I also plotted ranked IMAs against the ranked number of deaths.

Rank - IMAs vs deaths

So, what do we make of all this? Honestly, I’m not sure.

But because I’m interested in the truth, I’m posting up the original data as a Google Spreadsheet. Check my numbers! Check the sources for yourselves! And, if you can, do the analyses!

A few of my initial impressions are, though:
– In criticism and to contrast my results with Possum Comitatus’ article: (a) no statistical test was used to determine the significance of the regressions whereas they are tested here, (b) the Possum article focused on transformed data, which loses a lot of detailed, absolute information (though I have included ranked-transformed data here for comparison), (c) the article falsely assumes Australia and New Zealand are completely comparable in terms of regional immigration (Australia is far easier to access by boat from Asia) and destination desirability (partly joking), and (d) I consider a larger data-range spanning more policy differences here.
– The UNHCR data is awful to sift through. I could well have taken the wrong numbers by accident somewhere – so, please, check!
– To repeat, I am in no way suggesting or implying the morality of any of these policies; I am simply attempting to address the above-mentioned hypotheses (speaking of which, I’m forced to hesitantly and tentatively conclude alternate hypothesis B until I get more time to think about the data or add to it).  I am personally yet to make up my mind what is the right course (and, like any rational thinker, I’ll likely change my mind in the future, slightly or fully in response to evidence or situation).

Appendix I: List of 32 developed countries as

Czech Republic
New Zealand
South Africa
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
United States of America