December 16th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED Parliamentary stampede tramples freedoms

EUTHANASIA Palliative care remains the true solution

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The more Zimbabwe changes, the more it stays the same

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Putting the 'fair' back in the fair go for farmers

OPINION The new Reformation: How Christians found themselves on the 'wrong' side of history

PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY Why Marxists will not engage with opponents

ECONOMICS Kim Beazley rides in as a white knight for the TPP

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Mergers could give unions a striking profile

MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

CINEMA Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

BOOK REVIEW Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games

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Palliative care remains the true solution

by Terri M. Kelleher

News Weekly, December 16, 2017

Victoria has become the first Australian jurisdiction to legally empower doctors to intentionally kill a patient or to provide a patient with the means to kill themselves.

The new law will allow a person who has been “ordinarily resident” in Victoria for at least 12 months, who has “decision-making capacity”, has been diagnosed with a disease, illness or medical condition that is incurable, is expected to cause death within weeks or months not exceeding six months (not exceeding 12 months for certain neurological conditions), and is causing suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person considers tolerable to request a lethal substance to kill him/herself or to be administered by a doctor if the person is incapable of administering it him/herself.

“We will not introduce or change euthanasia laws.” These were the words from the Victorian Premier before the last state election. To seek to change that position, they at least should have gone back to the electorate with a clear statement that they would seek to legalise euthanasia. Why could the Government not have taken it to the next state election in November 2018, giving it a clear mandate to pursue it in Parliament?

Instead the bill to make assisted suicide and euthanasia legal in Victoria (the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017) was pushed through both houses of Parliament with exhausting marathon debates in both houses, including overnight sittings, gagging of MPs who wished to speak, or continuing debate at times a member could not be present to speak. The Premier even refused a Labor member time to speak a third time to an amendment. A Labor MP suffered a collapse and had to be taken to hospital after one overnight sitting.

All of which raises the question of whether enough time was allowed for adequate scrutiny of the bill. The impression is of desperate haste to get the bill voted on despite the final sitting week in December being available to allow more time.

And none of this undemocratic behaviour was necessary. There was no urgency that required scrutiny of the bill and the many serious issues it raised to be handled in this way. The lethal substance(s) to be used for the purposes of the law has yet to be developed or decided on and the law will not become operative until June 2019.

Putting the process of getting the bill through Parliament aside, the reality is that in Victoria we are now in a different place. Paul Keating captured the new reality eloquently and precisely when he wrote: “What matters is the ethical threshold being crossed. What matters is that under Victorian law there will be people whose lives we honour and those we believe are better off dead.”

It will affect everyone, not just a handful of dying patients. Expectations will change and perceptions of rights and responsibilities will change. Dying patients may feel they have a responsibility to request assisted suicide/euthanasia rather than expect palliative care so as not to be a burden on their families. Families may expect that their dying parent should request assisted suicide/euthanasia so they can access an inheritance and move on with their lives.

Doctors will be expected to assist with requests for assisted suicide/euthanasia, which has serious implications for the trust between doctor and patient. Health insurance providers may expect patients to accept coverage of assisted suicide/euthanasia lethal substances rather than more expensive treatments or palliative care. No one likes to believe this will happen but, despite the best of intentions, the easier path of quicker and earlier and cheaper death will, with irresistible force, shape the expectations and determine the decisions of patients, families, medical practitioners, our medical, health and social institutions.

This is a threshold moment for Australia. Victoria has let the genie out of the bottle; and once out, it is hard to put it back in. And it will spread. Already there has been a move to legalise assisted suicide/euthanasia throughout Australia. Greens Senator Richard Di Natale has already announced he will seek a national framework for voluntary euthanasia laws based on Victoria’s provisions for other states and territories to follow. Only last month an assisted suicide/euthanasia bill was narrowly defeated in NSW and a year ago a similar bill was again narrowly defeated in South Australia.

What is there to do? The obvious way forward is to promote palliative care. To be clear, assisted suicide/euthanasia must never become a palliative care “option”. It is a completely different approach to how we handle end of life.

As Dr John Buchanan recently wrote in an article in The Spectator Australia: “Palliative care is a sub-speciality of medicine which focuses on relief of symptoms at end of life, together with psychological and social care, whose aim is to help people to live as fully as possible until they die: a quite different goal from assisting suicide.”

We must call for more funding to ensure best standard palliative care and equality of access for all Australians. Unless this is achieved there will be injustice and the burden will fall most heavily on those who can’t afford quality palliative care. For them the law in Victoria now provides a cheaper and supposedly more dignified option of assisted suicide or euthanasia.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm