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Talking About Euthanasia Scares Us To Death

15/09/2015 8:51 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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For eight months now I've been rocking up to dinner parties and talking about death. Ironically, the discussion becomes the life of the party. Flood the table with wine and watch the morbid intrigue flow. That's my motto.

From work mates to boyfriends to the girl on the bar stool next to you -- ask anyone how and when they want to die and I guarantee they'll deliver you an answer. Whether you're 18, 28 or 78, everyone, and I mean everyone, guards a kind of sacred death wish about how they'd like to ...well, go.

It's one of the most personal and interesting questions you can ask someone. And yet, generally, here in Australia, we don't ask. Death is seen as a kind of taboo -- something sad and heavy, too dark to talk about. But what about the kind where you get to choose? Why aren't we discussing euthanasia?

Australian polls regularly and repeatedly show the same result. 70-80 percent of Australians support some form of action on assisted dying laws. We're all only human after all, who wouldn't want to control that big mortal unknown? The only problem is, we're too polite to talk about it.

Currently, euthanasia remains illegal in Australia. Bizarrely, we were once home to the first assisted dying laws in the world. Not that most people would know. The Northern Territory introduced Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1995. But that was only until it was overturned one year later. We've never come close since. So, euthanasia and assisted dying laws remain at the whim of each state's criminal laws and end of life decisions are made largely behind closed doors, in the blurry realm of doctor discretion.

Recently, debates around euthanasia have been flaring up again across the world. From Lecretia Seales in New Zealand to Brittany Maynard in the United States to the entire parliament of the UK -- the push to legalise the right to die is moving from the pro/anti fringes of the internet to a more visible -- and audible -- public debate.

Here, Victoria is the latest Australian state to launch its own parliamentary inquiry, evaluating its own citizen's end of life choices. Part of the inquiry will consider whether the current laws match their expectations at the end of their life. Judging by polls, I'm willing to bet they don't.

But here's the problem. Polls and inquiries are restricting the discussion. Asking whether we should have the choice is where the debate only ever seems to begin and almost always ends. There's no thought, or time, devoted to the spectrum of ideas that exists in between -- the how, the when and the why. Open up the debate -- start to map out the moral and ethical nitty gritty of how assisted dying laws should actually work -- and the questions explode in complexity. When it comes to euthanasia, the "in between" is vast and beautifully, tragically complicated.

We know most Australians want the right to choose the way their life will end. But what framework do we want? Where do "pro" voices draw the line? I dare you to crack a bottle of red and see where you end up.

For most people, terminal illness is the instant rationale -- an ethical, moral act in the face of prolonged, severe suffering. But look abroad and you can see that some of the longest running examples of legal euthanasia are operating, for better or worse, in a world of grey -- beyond the limits of terminal illness. This is where it gets interesting.

In 2001 and 2002 the Netherlands and Belgium both introduced laws that revolved around the idea of "incurable, unbearable suffering". It's a fascinating, leaky concept that -- for better or worse -- extends to illnesses beyond the oncology ward. Canada -- one of the only other countries to have legalised euthanasia -- is now working to amend its laws to copy the Belgian and Dutch examples. As someone who believes in a base idea of autonomy, the concept is difficult to fault.

But even for pro voices, it's confronting to see the kinds of questions and cases these countries are tackling thirteen or fourteen years down the line. Unbearable suffering is entirely subjective and remains up to each and every patient to define. Without the conditions of terminal illness, those with depression, anorexia, Alzheimer's and more can -- and do -- request to die. Psychological suffering in particular is now one of the fastest growing reasons for euthanasia in Belgium. Raise this at your liberal dinner party and watch the faces wince.

These examples are forcing many to confront and question their initial instincts on assisted death and the right to die. It's an endless debate -- there's honestly no clear right or wrong. A woman, 85 years old, all alone, who wants to die from grief? A young married father of two who lives in excruciating pain from constant, incurable headaches? Both say they live with incurable, unbearable suffering. Both have months, even decades left to live. Both want to die. These are real life cases. So who should decide if they have the right to die? Do we tell them they must live on? If they're granted the right to die, what are the impacts on family? Whose rights trump whose -- the one who dies or those that live on with their death?

I'm obsessed with the question. It goes to the heart of the human experience -- notions of compassion, morality, courage and tragedy -- all engulfed by the question of the right to die.

We need to go deeper. Rip the lid off the discussion and probe its murky depths. Not just in parliament but around the dinner table and in pubs. Until we do, the right to die will remain the abstract right of a distant few. And my poor boyfriend will be apologizing to dinner guests for years to come.

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Calliste Weitenberg is a producer with SBS Dateline. She tweets about things other than death (occasionally) @callirachel. Dateline airs tonight, 9.30pm on SBS.

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