We’ll let people starve to death but not go painlessly
The term ‘good death’ seems to be an oxymoron.
But for those who’ve cared for a terminally ill loved one, the ancient Greek definition of the word ‘euthanasia’ is appropriate.
In the past month, the right to die debate has been given oxygen (pun intended) by three separate cases in Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales.
First, however, a brief history of life, death, and whole damn thing.
For more than a decade, Doctor Philip Nitschke has argued that everyone over the age of 65 should have access to Nembutal. (Vets use the drug to euthanise animals, which die with more dignity than those higher up the food chain.)
In 1996, the world’s first euthanasia legislation was passed in the Northern Territory, before being overturned the following year by a conscience vote in the Federal Parliament. During that time, Dr. Nitschke helped four people to die using his Deliverance Machine (cue duelling banjos), which administers a lethal injection of barbiturates.
Fast-forward to last month, when the WA Supreme Court ruled that quadriplegic Christian Rossiter had the right to refuse food and water, without his nursing home being subject to prosecuted.
Starvation ain’t pretty. But it’s a step in the right direction. In Tasmania, a parliamentary committee is debating the Dying with Dignity Bill. Labor and Liberal MPs have been allowed a conscience vote on the bill, likely to become an issue in the state election early next year.
And last week, the NSW Supreme Court upheld the right to refuse medical treatment to patients who had previously made a “living will”. These Advance Care Directives, which patients can complete well before falling ill, are legally binding and can’t be overturned by family members.
While they can’t contain instructions for euthanasia, they could be used as a template for laws similar to those in the Netherlands. Over the past seven years, Dutch doctors have assisted in thousands of deaths. Most were cancer patients. And most were at home.
These laws give patients the power to specify the circumstances under which they would die by providing a written Euthanasia Directive, in case they are no longer able to communicate.
Apart from the will, at least two physicians must agree that the patient is terminally ill and that no hope for recovery exists.
Last year, I wrote at length about my mother’s painful death from pancreatic cancer, and our family’s desperate pleas to end her suffering.
That article prompted thousands of letters, emails and phone calls from Australians who wanted to share their share their stories: the 25 year old farmer who carried out his terminally ill grandfather’s final wish by suffocating him with a pillow; the woman who pumped extra morphine into her dying mother to help end her misery.
These kind, compassionate, courageous people live each day knowing that they could be charged with murder or manslaughter. Right-to-die laws are supported by up to 80 percent of Australians.Our laws are out of touch with community sentiment, because of the power of the Christian Right. Faced with a burgeoning aged population, Australia needs to have this debate sooner rather than later.
When we’re lying on our death beds, suffering immense pain and losing control of our bodily functions, we won’t care about John Della Bosca’s marital travails, Cate Blanchett’s bump on the head or the global financial crisis.
All we will care about is dying with a modicum of dignity.
A right we are currently denied.
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