Within the last few weeks, two incidents have highlighted the dangers in following the path of legalizing Euthanasia. The first occurred when Japan’s new finance minister, Taro Aso, said that the elderly should be allowed to “hurry up and die” to relieve pressure on the state to pay for medical care. “I would wake up feeling increasingly bad knowing that treatment was all being paid for by the government,” he said during a meeting of the national council on social security reforms. “The problem won’t be solved unless you let them hurry up and die.”
His comments were an insult to tens of millions of voters. Indeed, a quarter of the 128 million population of Japan is aged over 60, and the proportion is forecast to rise to 40% over the next 50 years. Caring for the elderly is a major challenge for Japan’s stretched social services. According to a report, the number of households receiving welfare, which included family members aged 65 and over, stood at more than 678,000, or about 40% of the total.
The aging populations of first world countries do present problems for governments in terms of finding the funds to pay for pensions and medical care. Precisely, in a society where Euthanasia is legalised and ultimately accepted as normal, thinking like that expressed by Aso would put pressure on the elderly to choose to end their lives before they may really want to. Being forced to feel that they have become a burden on society is a betrayal of the years of productive service and tax paying they have contributed to that society. Their taxes contributed to making it possible to put such social security benefits in place. As citizens, they paid taxes with the understanding that their governments would reciprocate by taking care of them in their retirement years. If governments have failed to manage their finances effectively, such that there is a shortfall, it is not the fault of the elderly, but of government officials.
To compound the insult, he referred to elderly patients who are no longer able to feed themselves as “tube people.” The health and welfare ministry, he added, was “well aware that it costs several tens of millions of yen” a month to treat a single patient in the final stages of life. The government is planning to reduce welfare expenditure in its next budget, due to go into force this April.
Because of the anger generated by his comments, Aso acknowledged his language had been ‘inappropriate’ in a public forum and insisted he was talking only about his personal preference. “I said what I personally believe, not what the end-of-life medical care system should be,” he told reporters. “It is important that you be able to spend the final days of your life peacefully.”
It is not the first time Aso, one of Japan’s wealthiest politicians, has questioned the state’s duty towards it large elderly population. In 2008, while serving as prime minister, he described “doddering” pensioners as tax burdens who should take better care of their health. “I see people aged 67 or 68 at class reunions who dodder around and are constantly going to the doctor,” he said at a meeting of economists. “Why should I have to pay for people who just eat and drink and make no effort? I walk every day and do other things, but I’m paying more in taxes.”
Underlying this is an attitude of devaluation of the human person. People purely have value while they are productive, but once they have retired, and are no longer productive in an economic sense, they are best eliminated. It is the economy, not the people, that has the greater value. It sounds like background material for Albert Huxley’s “A Brave New World.”
The second incident, that highlighted how legalizing euthanasia carries dangerous consequences for society, was brought to public attention by former Federal Justice Minister, turned Catholic priest, Michael Tate. Tate was a justice minister under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments from 1987 to 1993. He spoke out against a Tasmanian government plan for voluntary euthanasia, as sending the wrong message to young Tasmanians.
“I am particularly concerned about the confused social messages which would be sent to young people feeling such pain that they are contemplating ending their own lives,” Mr. Tate said. “Suicide is one of the most serious issues confronting society today.”
Mr. Tate said although the proposal put forward by Premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim was restricted to the terminally ill, it would mean that society would be sending very conflicting messages to those contemplating suicide.
“According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as recently as 2010, suicide was the leading cause of death for young Australians, with almost 300 suicides of young people aged between 15 and 24,” he said.
Mr. Tate said the focus should be on palliative care.
In presenting these arguments to you, I am not suggesting that the majority of those who propose legalizing euthanasia are not doing so out of evil and self-interested motives. Most are thinking compassionately about those who suffer daily from chronic pain or disability such that these sufferers just want the right to seek an end to their suffering. The problem they fail to consider, however, is the wider sociological implications that such a change in societal attitude towards legalized euthanasia could bring about. Indeed, the attitude espoused by Taro Aso, and the dangers pointed out by Michael Tate, indicate that such sociological consequences are not simply unfounded speculation. We need to think long and hard about our moral actions. Finding quick and easy solutions to complex problems do not do justice, but rather prevent true justice.