Euthanasia's "Unproductive Burdens"

By van Gend, David | The Human Life Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Euthanasia's "Unproductive Burdens"

van Gend, David, The Human Life Review

There was a moment of great significance during the euthanasia debate a decade ago that should be brought to the attention of today's legislators. A moment that crystallised the concerns of many that the so-called 'right to die' would come to be felt by the most vulnerable in our community as a 'duty to die.'

The year was 1995, in the midst of the debate over the impending Northern Territory legislation to permit doctors to give lethal injections to terminally ill patients. Our Head of State at the time, Governor-General Bill Hayden, was addressing the Royal Australian College of Physicians about why he supported euthanasia.

It was a scene rich in symbolism. The two key concerns about legalising euthanasia are what it would mean for the relationship between the State and its most vulnerable citizens, and what it would mean for the relationship between doctors and their most vulnerable patients. Here we had a person speaking in his capacity as Head of State advocating euthanasia as a positive duty of citizens once they had passed their usefulness to society; here we had the heirs of Hippocrates, whose Oath forbids them to give lethal poison to a patient, being asked to become society's killers as well as its healers.

The main significance of this address by the Governor-General was his suggestion that voluntary euthanasia is not merely a matter of choice but, more nobly, a positive obligation to society.

Mr. Hayden reminded us of past cultures where the elderly would take poison or wander off into the forests when their usefulness to society was done. He made the connection to our own elderly who, after "a full and satisfying lifetime" can become "unproductive burdens." He then made the portentous declaration that: "there is a point when the succeeding generations deserve to be disencumbered-to coin a clumsy word - of some unproductive burdens."1

Within a day this newly articulated duty of the burdensome to do the right thing by society was given extra gravitas by another ex-Governor, the late Sir Mark Oliphant. Speaking on ABC Radio he praised Mr. Hayden's views, and referred to an aged colleague in Canberra who "should be dead," who is a burden to his family but "likes being looked after." When the interviewer laughed and said "that's his right too," the blank response was that it was not, and that he was cluttering up the world when he shouldn't be.2

These were the sentiments, not of neo-Nazis snarling about "useless eaters," but of thoughtful citizens, respected Governors, shapers of social attitudes. They were seriously proposing that we develop a culture, like those described by Mr. Hayden, where "unproductive burdens" will act for the greater good of society.

Certainly, for a proud stoic like Hayden, the convenience of medically assisted suicide would enlarge his sense of choice and self-determination. But given the psychological vulnerability of the average sick old person, their low self-esteem, the sense they already have of being "unproductive burdens," and the power of insensitive family or medical staff to reinforce this sense, such a decision will be made from a position of humiliation and weakness.

We must have no illusions about the sort of pressures that can be brought to bear on frail people. One patient of mine, a woman with depression and minimal selfconfidence, received a vicious letter from a close relative effectively telling her she was a no-hoper who should be dead, and demanding certain arrangements in her Will. She now has cancer. What are the family dynamics that would feed into this patient's "right to die," given her position of humiliation and weakness?

A similar example of corrupted family relationships is reported from Holland by an Oxford palliative care specialist:

An old man was dying from disseminated lung cancer. His symptoms were well controlled and he asked if he could go and die at home. When his four children were told about his wish, they would not agree to take care of him. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Euthanasia's "Unproductive Burdens"


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.