Oral Presentation Australasian Association of Bioethics & Health Law and New Zealand Bioethics Conference

Practices of (Mortal) Freedom: Voluntary Assisted Dying and the Conduct of ‘Choice’ (1024)

Courtney Hempton 1
  1. Monash University, Clayton, VICTORIA, Australia

On 19 June 2019 the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic) came into effect, making Victoria the first state in Australia to establish a regime of physician-assisted death. As described by the Department of Health and Human Services, the legislation “provides a safe legal framework for people who are suffering and dying to choose the manner and timing of their death”1. If voluntary assisted dying entails some kind of state-sanctioned ‘freedom’ to choose death—albeit contingent on a medicalised rendering of ‘suffering and dying’—then what kind of freedom is it? While a rhetoric of ‘choice’ is pivotal to the institution of voluntary assisted dying, the model enacted offers individuals neither a positive or a negative claim to medical assistance to die. In this paper, I draw on Michel Foucault’s conception of biopolitics to account for the kind of freedom produced by the state’s management of voluntary assisted dying. Construed in terms of relations of power, I argue the state’s voluntary assisted dying apparatus does not make individuals any ‘freer’ per se; it is necessary to already be free in some relevant sense. Instead, the conditions of voluntary assisted dying function to circumscribe the ‘field of possibilities’ within which freedom may be exercised (i.e. the ‘conduct of conduct’)—to be realised, voluntary assisted dying necessitates a practice of (mortal) freedom. Productively, this understanding of freedom enables the sketching of a fuller biopolitical account of voluntary assisted dying, allowing for the consideration of governmentality, an ‘ethics of the self’, and possibilities for resistance.

  1. Victorian Government Department of Health and Human Services. Voluntary assisted dying: Overview. health.vic.gov.au/hospitals-and-health-services/patient-care/end-of-life-care/voluntary-assisted-dying/vad-overview. Accessed 15 July 2019.