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Euthanasia for Prisoners is a Bad Idea

Philip Nitschke, at the forefront for advocating the right to euthanasia, has written an article for The Guardian titled Euthanasia is a rational option for prisoners facing the torture of life in jail. Nitschke’s article discusses a court ruling on a Belgian murderer / rapist aged 55, incarcerated since the 1980s, granted permission for voluntary euthanasia under Belgian law.

Under the Belgian model, physical or psychological suffering that is incurable or constant can be the grounds for voluntary euthanasia. What is there not to agree with? The Belgians’ progressive approach shifts the debate from the semantics of “terminal illness”, a definition that is notorious within medicine, to a focus upon a person’s quality of life, as experienced by them.Philip Nitschke

I am an ex-prisoner from the Tasmanian prison system originally sentenced to the Term of my Natural Life, so I would point out a few concerning details about Nitschke’s argument. Because it would be a devastating move to Australia’s national position on the Death Penalty if we progressed in the same direction.

My general concerns in a short list:

  1. Prison may be uncomfortable, but if it is torture for one man to be incarcerated then it’s a torture for all. If we are torturing prisoners this needs to be addressed within the prison system.
  2. Future governments could move toward making this decision on behalf of some prisoners.
  3. The depressed person is a mentally ill person. It is unlikely that a person without depression would request to die.
  4. If approved, bureaucracy would not allow an opportunity right at the last week (or minute) before the execution for the prisoner to retract their request. Legal systems work slowly. And killing an unwilling prisoner is fundamentally unethical.
  5. Prisons are endemically corrupt. And often inept. Just as prisoners can be accidentally released, so could a prisoner be accidentally murdered by the State. And, in the worst case scenario of corruption, elective suicide would leave open questions around whether prisons, or governments, or criminals, could disappear people. Especially those who fall through the cracks.
  6. Coercion could also be applied to certain prisoners, by either the State or underworld criminals, to sign away their life. Either as a part of revenge-seeking behaviour, or through the malice of corruption. Or both combined.
  7. There is also a concern that one third of our prison system (Australia’s inmate population now exceeds 34,000 prisoners) are mentally ill. This is an unsafe environment to have death by request.
  8. The State should never be in the business of murdering citizens. Australia’s position on the death penalty is clearly in opposition to capital punishment. Over the last twenty years any public support for executions, even of fringe cases, has massively declined.
  9. I offer an example to the last point: Gary Gilmore, a convicted murderer from the United States, asked to be executed and selected death by firing squad. However, regardless of volunteering, Gilmore’s death remains a capital punishment. In the same fashion, killing an Australian prisoner on an approved legal request would be no less capital punishment than the execution of Gary Gilmore was in the 1970s.
  10. Finally, giving somebody like Tasmania’s mass murderer Martin Bryant the ability to take that control of their destiny isn’t an optimal solution. Should such a person be able to martyr themselves? If, for example, the objective for committing the crime was to make it into record books, or seek fame as a murderer? So, no. That would be abhorrent. And it’s probably the most powerful argument on this list. Prisoners should not control their perception within the 24 hour news cycle.

It’s important to realise that advocates of voluntary euthanasia for prisoners are motivated by individual agendas. Each group will gladly provide edge cases that hopefully sway you towards their end goal, if only a step at a time. For example, Nitschke doesn’t hide his advocacy of euthanasia, not only for the dying, but for anyone who requests an assisted suicide. And two other groups likely to latch onto this argument would be the pro-Death-Penalty and the Victims-of-Crime lobbies. Each would happily push for a step closer to harsher punishments like a Death Penalty (optional or imposed by courts).

The simple fact of this case in relation to the Australian social, legal and ethical landscape is that allowing prisoners to elect to be killed by the State would be a blatant move towards a Death Penalty. It may be perfectly fine in Belgium, but it’s certainly not for us. Like they say “If you believe in a death penalty for the edge cases, you believe in the death penalty.” We either agree that killing citizens is appropriate, or we don’t.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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