Righting a travesty for the terminally ill


Today, The Age calls on Federal Parliament to recognise in law the right of terminally ill people to choose, under rigorously regulated circumstances, the timing and manner of their death. In coming hours, the cross-party Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee is expected to report on such a legislative proposal by Greens senator Richard Di Natale. Throughout this week we will be publishing, across our digital platforms and in our newspaper, stories, interviews and arguments to ventilate the case for change, and we invite our readers to participate in the debate in the pages of the paper and online.

The committee may well raise a small number of concerns, but we believe, as other nations have shown, it is eminently possible to produce a law with adequate safeguards. And we believe the moment has arrived for our lawmakers to respect a position surveys have long shown is supported by as many as eight in 10 of our citizens.

We hold that life is inestimably precious and should be protected. But we recognise there are many terminally ill people who suffer dreadfully. In such cases, we share the view of Dr Rodney Syme, one of the leading proponents for physician-assisted death and a man who openly admits to having helped terminally ill people die by giving them the means and knowledge to end their suffering. He is doing so for Peter Short, a Melbourne man close to death who has been campaigning for the right to choose and who is one of the people who inspired Senator Di Natale's bill. A video interview with Mr Short, who testified before the Senate committee, is part of our coverage this week.

Dr Syme's argument, based on decades of experience, is compelling: dying may be associated with excruciating suffering, and there may be a crescendo of suffering as death draws nigh; a doctor's duty is to relieve suffering; some suffering will only be relieved by death; a doctor's duty is to respect a patient's autonomy; some patients rationally and persistently request assistance to die; and, palliative care cannot relieve all the pain and suffering of dying patients. Palliative support is central to our advocacy – most people who have the option of physician-assisted death do not take it, but as Dr Syme, Mr Short and many others attest, those who do have that option immediately benefit because it alleviates fear and anxiety.

Some argue that people might unduly make such a final decision because they are depressed or feel they are a burden to others, and that unscrupulous relatives might seek to manipulate a patient. Overseas experience suggests these concerns are misplaced. Another issue the committee report might raise is definitional boundaries. What should be the definition of terminal, for example? We believe settling this is also readily within the capacity of our lawmakers.

As we have stressed in the past, we do not support voluntary euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke, because through his organisation, Exit International, he aids people who are not terminally ill to die by suicide, and we are concerned he is fuelling inappropriate demand – and an online black market – for a particular drug being used to induce death. It is in the public interest to pass a law that permits medical practitioners such as Dr Syme to offer peace to terminally ill patients but prevents those like Dr Nitschke from facilitating the death of people who should instead receive treatment.

The time has come for Australia's political leaders to not only grant a conscience vote, but to urge their colleagues to advance our civilisation by passing well-honed legislation. This issue concerns all humanity. It transcends party politics, and it behoves our elected representatives to show courage and decency by delivering an enlightened, compassionate change.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/righting-a-travesty-f...