ONE of Australia’s most prominent anti-euthanasia campaigners maintains an “intensified” political battle is brewing to allow voluntary euthanasia.
“There is no law allowing it currently – but that could easily change,” Paul Russell, a Catholic and the executive director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia and assisted suicide, said.
“A vote in a parliament could easily tip one way or another. It is all very close.
“There’s extra focus because of the 20th anniversary of the passing of the first euthanasia law anywhere in the world, in the Northern Territory.”
In Victoria and South Australia state politicians stand on the threshold of considering changes that would permit assisted dying laws.
A recent survey of Victorian MPs from all sides of politics found there is likely to be enough support for assisted dying legislation, as long as the laws included provisions, which some politicians consider robust enough to provide sufficient protection from abuse.
The reform is edging closer after a cross-parliament committe urged the state to adopt voluntary euthanasia laws, and this is supported by the state’s health minister, Jill Hennessy, who expects a government decision on the matter by December.
In South Australia, media personality Andrew Denton launched Go Gentle – a euthanasia law reform campaign and Premier Jay Weatherill supports a conscience vote in parliament on the issue.
A euthanasia bill – the fourteenth attempt in South Australia – will be put before the parliament on October 20.
The situation is different in Queensland where euthanasia is expected to remain a criminal offense.
Successive petitions asking for assisted suicide or euthanasia have been rejected by the Attorney-General, who acknowledges it as an issue which “polarises” the community.
In general, the argument against euthanasia has not changed since it was legalized in the Northern Territory 20 years ago and then overturned by a Federal parliamentary vote.
The argument is simply that it leads, on balance, to a less compassionate society that creates a new set of moral and practical hazards for itself.
It is a gross over-response to the real problem of patient pain that needs more care and money.
“It is a risk to vulnerable people, it cannot be made safe, and it is actually killing people. That argument has not changed,” Mr Russell said.
Pope Francis made the Church position on euthanasia clear in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia
“The family protects human life in all its stages, including its last. Similarly, … the Church … feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia’,” Pope Francis wrote.
The tragic effects are now being seen in those few European countries that adopted euthanasia laws and are now dealing with fundamental changes to doctor ethics, family relationships and principles of human life.
Last month a terminally ill minor became the first child to be euthanised in Belgium since age restrictions were lifted in the country two years ago,
Belgium is the only country that allows euthanasia for children of any age.
The Netherlands also allows mercy killings for children, but only for those 12 and over.
It became the first country to legalise euthanasia in April 2002.
The US state of Oregon has had an assisted dying law for the last 19 years.
“In Belgium and the Netherlands, euthanasia is accepted as a right,” Mr Russell (pictured)said.
“It was never designed that way, but now basically anyone can ask for it.
“More and more circumstances and categories of persons can be considered, whereas in 2001 and 2002 when the laws were debated the discussions were simply about people who were in pain and discomfort at the end of life.
“Now we have a broader acceptance that virtually anyone can suffer.
“So it is not just terminal illness, not just cases of very difficult injuries. It can also be about grief, blindness … really the only criteria that is common is that the person is suffering.”
Mr Russell said palliative care offered great relief in most cases.
“If anything has changed in the last 20 years it is our ability to manage pain and suffering to an incredible degree,” he said.
Mr Russell’s assessment is backed up by respected Queensland medical specialist, Dr Julia Wootten, who regularly delivers care to the terminally ill.
Dr Wootten told The Catholic Leader in June she believes there is “far less chance” of patients favouring euthanasia if high-quality care was available.
“There’s no doubt that where you come into contact with good palliative care services that the idea that people will want to end their life prematurely is much less likely,” Dr Wootton, director of palliative care at St Vincent’s Hospital, Brisbane, said
“In 20 years I can only think of one person who maintained that request (for euthanasia) to her dying day, despite being in contact with palliative care services.
“For a lot of people it is the fear of losing control, of being in a lot of pain, of losing their dignity. And they believe as long as they can decide what happens they are in control.
“I think that what is driving the idea of ‘I want to be able to end my life if and when I decide’, is fear.”
Mr Russell said witnessing a loved-one dying was a subjective experience – and one that polarised opinions about the dignity of dying.
“In my experience, two people witnessing the death of a relative can reach different conclusions. One can see the event as a good death and another will see it as a harrowing death. One will become a supporter of euthanasia and the other will be against it,” he said.
By Mark Bowling