Do you have the right to choose when you die?

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The term ‘voluntary euthanasia’ is broadly defined as a situation where a patient requests their physician to either slow their medical treatment, or hasten death through specific drugs or practices, in order to relieve unbearable pain or suffering.

The roots of the term originate from the Greek for ‘good’ or ‘easy death’. But even the way people name this process is a source of contention. Is access to euthanasia part of a human right to die and a method to ensure you can do so with dignity? Or does it give doctors a right to kill, in effect legalising homicide and violating the sanctity of life?

Mercy or murder?

The arguments against the right to die are often referred to as ‘slippery slope’ arguments. Advocates against voluntary euthanasia ask what we lose institutionally and morally, if we legalise the ability for doctors to grant a person’s wish for death.

Karen Hitchcock, a prominent voice against euthanasia, has written that those with a terminal illness desire death primarily because they hold a ‘feeling of hopelessness’. She argues that doctors should utilise advanced pallative care techniques and that families should help the sick and elderly live well, rather than advocating death as a solution.

Advocates against euthanasia fear that once institutionalised, the laws could be expanded to make euthanasia standards laxer for doctors, grant access to those with treatable mental health problems, and lower any age requirements for application.

Sensationalising a sensitive issue

Dr Neera Bhatia, a senior lecturer at Deakin University Law School, claims that sensationalist media coverage has led to a disadvantage to the pro-euthanasia cause. Her work has highlighted the way the media talks about the issue, with a focus on a narrow range of extreme cases which feeds the narrative of those opposed to voluntary euthanasia. ‘Australian legislators and policy makers must take a considered and rational evaluation and understanding of a relevant legal framework and policy considerations as to how an assisted dying regime could operate in Australia. Paying attention to sensationalist media coverage is a less than ideal approach,’ Dr Bhatia says.

 

'Australian legislators and policy makers must take a considered and rational evaluation and understanding of a relevant legal framework and policy considerations as to how an assisted dying regime could operate in Australia.'

Dr Neera Bhatia,
Deakin University

Close to home

Despite evidence of strong public support for changes to the laws allowing voluntary euthanasia, few issues experience such stagnation on a political level.

Following a 10-month inquiry, a cross-party committee in Victoria recently put forward a report making 49 recommendations covering assisted suicide. ‘The Government should introduce legislation to allow adults with decision-making capacity, suffering from a serious and incurable condition who are at the end of life to be provided assistance to die in certain circumstances’, the report said.

The report highlights the pressure on those who advocate for dying with dignity. Euthanasia would only be available for those with an incurable condition who are already dying, as opposed to those with a debilitating mental health issue. Similarly, requests must be voluntarily made by the patient and requires the approval of two doctors.

The report does challenge the major arguments against euthanasia. Committee chair, Liberal MP Ed O’Donohue, said, ‘We found no evidence of institutional corrosion or the often cited slippery slope’. This combined with growing public interest has put pressure on Premier Daniel Andrews to support the committee’s findings.

Premier Andrews has previously acknowledged the growing levels of support  and change among the public, but has expressed concerns around safeguards. He says his views are informed by his time as health minister and the burden of having to ‘free up hospital beds’. Something all of Australia will have to respond to as our population grows and ages at rapid rates. The state government has six months to reply the report.

Whether the committee’s recommendations are passed or not, Dr Bhatia says they are a significant step forward for those advocating the right to die. ‘There is a lot of support for the legislation and it is the closest Victoria has come to having assisting dying legalised in a long time. It is an important and positive development towards giving individuals access to dying with dignity in certain limited circumstances.’

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Dr Neera Bhatia
Dr Neera Bhatia

Senior Lecturer, Deakin University Law School
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