Right to Die or Duty to Die?
Major General Peter R Phillips AO MC KCSG [Papal] [Ret’d]
It was good to see you and I enjoyed our chat. I am sorry that you have had such a rough time and that your prognosis is so poor. I am not surprised that your thoughts are turning to your final hours. You asked what I thought about you signing up for assisted dying or euthanasia. That’s a tough one but, as promised, I am giving you my views in this letter as honestly as I can.
I came to the position a long time ago that society should not go down the path of legalising euthanasia. My view arose out of the debates about the repeal of the Northern Territory laws back in the 1990s and particular concern for veterans and war widows. The RSL National Executive spent much time on the matter and decided to support the Australian Medical Association which was firmly opposed to legalising euthanasia. Our National President at the time was the late Major General ‘Digger’ James. You will remember that he was a respected soldier who had lost a leg in Korea and went on to become a doctor. He was steadfast on this issue and carried the day.
Back then the feedback was that a majority of the League’s membership (then about 240,000) was in favour of laws permitting euthanasia. In group discussions, however, it was apparent that only a minority was in favour of active, as opposed to passive, euthanasia. The real issue was provision of proper palliative care and pain relief, even though that might hasten death.
It was also apparent that many ex-servicemen felt that taking one’s life rather than becoming a burden to their families was the ‘proper thing to do’. This is not surprising given our training in the Services to be prepared to sacrifice our lives if necessary for our comrades and for the nation. We often heard of this wish not to be a burden to others.
In 1998, the Government had me set up a National Ex-Service Round Table on Aged Care. During my 10 years as chairman, the forum kept under review improved palliative care for veterans and war widows. That was widely welcomed and I recall no instance where we were ever asked to promote or even consider euthanasia as an alternative.
We were particularly impressed by the efforts of Dr Sylvester of the Austin Repat Hospital in Melbourne, in establishing the ‘Respecting Patient Choices’ program. We saw that promotion of advanced care planning, combined with good quality palliative care, was well accepted, provided a greater sense of autonomy to individuals planning for their demise, and that it was an arrangement that was ethical and capable of resolution between the doctor and patient. I am pleased that advanced care directives are now widely accepted and you have been wise to talk through this with your family. Please make sure you get it down in writing and sign up before your faculties fail. DVA has a useful document, Planning Ahead, on its website which might help.
Of course, many are moved by compassion for the few difficult cases of people in extreme suffering. My experience, however, is that ‘hard cases make bad law’ and that is reflected in what is going on in places like the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Oregon in the US and other places that have euthanasia legislation.
I am not emotionally distant from this issue. My granddaughter lived in an irreversible coma in a Brisbane hospital and nursing home for four years in the 1990s before her death at the age of seven. While we might have wished to see her die, we were greatly moved by the care given to her by strangers and the impact that the ‘termination’ of even one child would have on the well being of her family and society as a whole.
To end your life through euthanasia would also have impacts on your family and the wider society that you ought to consider. You may think that you have had enough and should shuffle off this mortal coil but I am sure that your family will see your last moments as precious. I particularly remember an uncle of mine, ex-WWII Air Force, who suffered with cancer for 13 years until his death. I offered him commiserations but he said, ‘Thanks, Peter, but I wouldn’t have missed these years for quids. Why? Simply because, since I became ill, the family has given me so much love – undreamed of!’
Remember also that euthanasia, assisted dying or whatever you call it, is suicide. Would you want to be remembered for that? and what of the example for future generations? Youth suicide figures are bad enough now without it being seen to be condoned by us oldies.
I am concerned also about letting doctors be involved in ‘physician assisted suicide’ and I don’t think that is compatible with palliative care. Would you want to be cared for by a doctor who deliberately promoted and assisted in ending the life of the terminally ill? Let me tell you about a German medical officer in the Afrika Corps who was captured by the SAS in the Western Desert in 1942. While held captive by a patrol, he assisted by working with the British MO in the patrol. Eventually he escaped and returned to the German lines. After the War, he admitted that he had taken the life of one of his terribly wounded patients by giving him an overdose. He went on, however, to devote his life to making amends through providing palliative care and was a founder of the hospice movement. You can read about him in Ben McIntyre’s book, SAS Rogue Heroes, Penguin, 2016.
I note that 2018 will see the 50th anniversary of the battles at Coral-Balmoral in South Vietnam. You will remember at Balmoral that after one of the attacks on 3RAR some 50 North Vietnamese soldiers lay dead near our Company’s forward defences. Later we found that many more wounded had been dragged away. In fact, several were found in a terrible state by our patrols. It would have been too easy to simply despatch them on the spot with a well aimed shot rather than treat them or organise to get them to a prisoner of war compound or hospital. Had we come from a country that looked kindly or blindly on ‘mercy killing’ perhaps we would have done so. Yet my abiding memory is of our soldiers picking maggots from and binding the wounds of these young enemy soldiers.
In more recent years, I did some work for the Centre for Ageing and Pastoral Studies at Charles Sturt University. I searched for but found no tenable moral argument in favour of active euthanasia. If it was brought into law, I think the few cases would become many as more and more vulnerable people who are aged, suffering or depressed would come to consent, under real or imagined pressure, to be ‘euthanised’ rather than seek proper care. Even now, we see calls in overseas countries for euthanasia to be available to mentally incompetent aged persons and seriously disabled children. I am especially concerned now that, as the number of aged persons with dementia grows exponentially, mercy killing will be seen as a solution. Next it could even be seen as a panacea for health budgets!
I hope that you continue to get good care and, even if the ‘hospital food is no better than those b—– Army Field Rations’, hang in there!
Major General Peter Phillips has been a member of the RSL and Legacy for 46 years. He has served as President of Canberra Legacy and National President of the RSL from 1997 to 2003. He chaired the Finance Council of the Military Ordinariate for ten years until 2016.