A Griffith University health expert has warned changes to federal ‘right- to- die’ laws for the terminally ill are unlikely to change any time soon.
Griffith University Associate Professor of Ethics and Professional Practice Eleanor Milligan said not only is euthanasia a health issue but also a moral and human rights issue which inevitably sees it assume a political dimension.
“Unfortunately [euthanasia] can easily become politicised and it’s very sad to see the opportunity for a good death be undermined by a collective inability to de-politicise and count it as a health issue.”
Her comments follow the high profile euthanasia death of young American woman Brittany Maynard, 29, earlier this month which drew global attention to the availability of legal euthanasia regimes in some US states.
Professor Milligan said some doctors are bound to have a problem with legalisation whereas others will not, depending on individual beliefs and values.
“One of the arguments involved is, if this is legalised, it will then become the norm and people will be expected to contribute in a way that’s against their moral code.”
Professor Milligan also noted doctors are a very diverse group and have their own cultural beliefs.
The closest Australia came to euthanasia reform was the Northern Territory’s passing of the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1995, itself overturned by a private members bill during the first term of the Howard Government in 1997.
In response to this, Dr Philip Nitschke, who was the first doctor in the world to administer legal and voluntary euthanasia, founded Exit International.
Exit International’s Brisbane Chapter Coordinator Angelika Minner said the organisation’s belief is that rational adults should have the right to choose their own ending.
Ms Minner said when someone is being kept alive for months when terminally or seriously ill with no hope of recovering, this is not “saving lives”, but is rather “prolonging the process of dying”.
“When this is happening against the wish of the patient I would call this barbaric and unethical,” she said.
Deputy Program Director of Griffith University’s Bachelor of Nursing Ms Jayne Hewitt agrees ethical barriers will create many challenges for doctors and nurses.
“Some of those [ethical] challenges already exist in that providing care to the people who are at the end of their life which may be deemed futile is also ethically challenging,” she said.
Paul Russell of HOPE – Preventing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide argues euthanasia and assisted suicide is a bad public policy and those who are unwell are easily manipulated.
“Anyone who is facing a difficult prognosis or life event that has shaken them may well be vulnerable at some point to subtle and not so subtle suggestion,” she said.
It is the belief of the Coalition that euthanasia and assisted suicide continue to be regarded as murder or homicide, irrespective of whether the person has given their consent to be killed.
Cynthia Burnett of Dying with Dignity Queensland said overseas euthanasia laws come with safeguards.
“In countries where this is legal, not only does the patient have the choice to request help but doctors also have a choice to participate and help the patient or not,” she said.
“No doctor is forced to participate and all doctors, nurses and any other health care person involved in the patient’s care are given legal indemnity in the legislation.”
HOPE’s Mr Russell has challenged key aspects of Nitschke’s euthanasia philosophy.
He said if a “quasi-right-to-die” was to be created, then those who are outside the target group will also push for their “right-to-die”. He said Nitschke’s argument is that anyone should be allowed to die at any time and for any reason as long as they are of sound mind.
The subject has raised a number of questions surrounding the ethical barriers affecting doctors and nurses.
Ethics and legalities aside, Brittany Maynard’s prognosis meant a life of progressively worsening pain.
Dying with Dignity’s Ms Burnett said treatment allows the terminally ill to remain alive even though they are in intolerable pain.
“Modern medicine has the ability to keep dying people alive in circumstances that cause the patient great suffering and cause their last days, weeks or months to be intolerable,” she said.
“Many patients in these circumstances don’t want to be kept alive.”
Before she took her life, Mrs Maynard said in a video, shared on YouTube, how she felt relief knowing her fate would be less painful than she had been led to believe.
“I can’t even tell you the amount of relief it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way it’s been described to me.”
Mrs Maynard’s husband, Dan, said he felt a great sense of relief knowing his wife did not have to endure pain in the final months of her life.
“Between suffering or being allowed to decide when enough is enough is just, to me, provides a lot of relief and comfort that, okay, that option is there if and when we decide, or she decides, that it’s time.”
Mrs Maynard’s final plea is for people to seize the day and pursue what they love.
“The reason to consider life and what’s of value is to make sure you’re not missing out. Seize the day. What’s important to you? What do you care about? What matters? Pursue that. Forget the rest.”
Brittany Maynard knew when she would die. Her story will surely reignite debate on an issue that affects so many regardless of circumstance.
If you or anyone you know is seeking support or information on suicide, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.