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Doctor warns legalising euthanasia will undermine support for people in palliative care

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Caution: Doctors have warned against moves to legalise euthanasia in Victoria, saying that expanded palliative care would be a better move. Photo: Flickr/Alberto Biscalchin

A CONTROVERSIAL bill to legalise euthanasia will be introduced into Victorian Parliament in the second half of next year, despite doctors’ warnings that expanded palliative care would deliver better results.

Premier Daniel Andrews was previously against euthanasia, but is now keen to support it after watching his father suffer through a long battle with cancer.

“That gives you reason to reassess whether you have got this right and, for my part, my (previous) opposition to these laws was wrong,” Mr Andrews told reporters in Melbourne on December 8.

“My position has changed. Subject to the appropriate safeguards, subject to a good bill being put forward … I intend to vote for that bill.”

However, palliative care doctors opposing the bill, have argued there was not evidence that euthanasia would be any more beneficial for a terminally ill patient than palliative care.

“We’re talking about potentially a major shift in a major new public health intervention,” Professor Peter Hudson, from St Vincent’s Health, told ABC radio.

“There needs to be a suitable evidence base behind it, all the side effects of the proposed intervention need to be assessed, and there needs to be a review of this over time in terms of the resources required to implement it.

“And we don’t believe that the proposed model has been through that level of scrutiny.”

If the bill does pass, Victoria will be the first state to legalise euthanasia in Australia. Voluntary euthanasia was briefly legal in the Northern Territory in the 1990s.

In Victoria, terminally ill patients seeking euthanasia would have their request reviewed by two doctors, they could see a psychiatrist, and be allocated a case worker, before making any final decision.

Prof Hudson said this system would provide better quality care for assisted suicide than for people who requested palliative care.

“… As it currently stands, if somebody has a terminal illness in Australia at the moment, their chances of getting all those supports are very limited,” he told ABC radio.

“So you have a system where, if you elect assisted suicide you’re going to be guaranteed certain supports, whereas if you don’t, your chances of getting comprehensive, quality palliative care are less than likely.”

Prof Hudson said Victoria’s politicians had made assumptions about what a euthanasia bill would deliver.

“There’s an assumption that if assisted suicide or euthanasia is supported, then people who avail themselves of this will have a kind of sanitised, completely pain-free death, and that can’t be guaranteed,” he said.

“Death and dying is messy, like birth. It can’t be fixed by a law or a pill.

“And we have evidence in jurisdictions where euthanasia has been supported that for some people, they actually regurgitate the medications they’ve been given, some people have had seizures, and some people actually it takes them a very long time to die.”

The Australian Medical Association opposes Victoria’s euthanasia model and wants an “opt-out” option for doctors if legislation is passed so practitioners who morally object aren’t forced to help patients die.

However, Victorian branch president Lorraine Baker this week acknowledged community attitudes on assisted dying had changed and she said the AMA wanted to be involved in the development of any bill.

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