Worrying vagueness in renewed bid for euthanasia

Published in the Courier Mail 23 October 2009

SOUTH Australia is the latest battleground in the long-running campaign to legalise euthanasia.
That state’s Parliament is scheduled to vote on the somewhat deceptively titled Consent to Medical Treatment and Palliative Care (Voluntary Euthanasia) Amendment Bill 2008 next Wednesday.

If the Bill, introduced by Greens MP Mark Purnell, is passed, it would legalise euthanasia for an adult who has an “illness, injury or other medical condition that irreversibly impairs the person’s quality of life so that life has become intolerable to that person”. There are also provisions for advance requests for those experiencing a “level of pain, indignity or other distress”.
Worryingly, the Bill does not define key phrases such as “terminal phase”, “terminal illness”, “pain”, “indignity” or “distress”. Some are calling such omissions reckless and dangerous. Further, with no residency requirements, it could make South Australia a death tourism destination.

Euthanasia advocates have been clamouring for a win since the Northern Territory’s euthanasia laws were overturned by federal law in March 1997. In the nine months euthanasia had been legal, Dr Philip Nitschke was the only doctor to use the laws to help people kill themselves.

Greens Senator Bob Brown last year introduced a Bill to allow the Northern Territory to reinstate euthanasia and in Victoria Greens MP Colleen Hartland put forward a private member’s Bill to introduce voluntary euthanasia. Both were defeated.

The issue of assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia has also generated much discussion in legislatures internationally.
In Canada, the Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in 1995 recommended against legalising assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia.

It observed that “if assisted suicide were legalised and accepted by the community, how could the expectations of the people surrounding the patient not influence his or her decision, particularly if the patient feels she or he is a burden on the family?”.
It also observed: “Financial restraints could also result in attempts, perhaps unconsciously, to influence patients to die more quickly and conveniently.”

It concluded that “all of the above factors could make it difficult to establish whether a request for assisted suicide is voluntary”.

The British House of Lords in 2006 and again in 2009 voted against legislation for voluntary euthanasia, reaffirming its previous comments that “if a law permitting euthanasia were passed, then vulnerable people – the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed – would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death”.

This is one of the very real problems with legislation such as that coming before the South Australian Parliament. What of those who are vulnerable, or who have disabilities or mental illness, and who are aware of the increased level of care they require from friends and family?

When does the option to die subtly shift to the duty to do so?

Those in despair need medical professionals, and society in general, to provide comfort and protection, rather than place them in a vulnerable position.

To do anything less is to betray those we are meant to care for.