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Euthanasia alternative: Why Australia should focus more on palliative care services

Your choice: Australians are growing in favour of voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.

Your choice: Australians are growing in favour of voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.

A RESPECTED medical specialist delivering care to the terminally ill believes there is “far less chance” of patients favouring euthanasia if high-quality care is 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,” Palliative Care Queensland president Dr Julia Wootten said. 

“I’ve obviously had quite a lot of requests in my 20 years (as a specialist), and when I talk matters over with people and they tell me their fears, I can say to them ‘Well, actually this is how we manage that, this is what we do’.”

Results from the ABC’s online election survey, Vote Compass, show Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of allowing voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill.

When asked whether “terminally ill patients should be able to legally end their own lives with medical assistance”, 75 per cent of respondents agreed, 16 per cent disagreed. 

Nine per cent were neutral.

In the end-of-life debate, access to high-quality care, appears to be the key issue shaping public opinion.

A survey of public attitudes being conducted by the Australian Centre for Health Research, makes the point that: “Unfortunately, the care received near the end of life often does not reflect a person’s values, goals and informed preferences.”

“Although the majority of Australians say they would prefer to die at home, most people currently die in a hospital and often in an intensive care unit,” the survey said.

“People frequently endure unwanted aggressive treatment and suffer from inadequate management of symptoms such as pain and shortness of breath.

“Additionally, the end of life is often characterised by fragmented care systems; poor communication between doctors, patients and families; and enormous strains on care-givers and support systems.”

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. Consequently, ‘those who work in healthcare facilities are reminded of the moral duty of conscientious objection. Similarly, the Church … feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia’,” Pope Francis wrote.

Dr Wootton, director of palliative care at St Vincent’s Hospital, Brisbane, sees her mission in line with the moral duty of health workers to protect human life, ensuring that every person experiences quality at the end of life. 

She promotes amongst her medical team to get to know patients at an early stage of treatment, and to build a strong relationship.

“We live in a society where everybody says I know my rights and believe they can have almost anything they want. But people don’t always think about their responsibility and who may be more vulnerable and at risk than them,” she said.

“It is always said we can put safeguards in place with euthanasia – I don’t believe that’s the case. 

“Also that it cannot happen without consent. That is the ethical dilemma the general public don’t have to think about. They just think about themselves.” 

Dr Wootton said her palliative care team was encouraged to build strong relationships with patients at an early stage of treatment, and to find out what are the patient’s concerns and fears.

“Once people have gone through that process of saying what their fears are and what’s motivated them to end their life prematurely then often that request goes away,” she 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.”

None of the major parties are promoting euthanasia as a public policy during the election campaign but, given strong general public support for euthanasia, it could be the next crop of elected politicians who are called on to decide whether to legalise euthanasia.

Labor and the Greens have confirmed their party backing for a conscience vote on the euthanasia issue, while the Coalition view is less clear. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told ABC Radio last year that end-of-life laws were “fraught with practical difficulties and of course fraught with very significant moral difficulties”.

Vote Compass asked more than 200,000 respondents whether terminally ill patients should be able to legally end their own lives with medical assistance.

Seventy-five per cent strongly or somewhat agreed, nine per cent were neutral and 16 per cent strongly or somewhat disagreed.

By Mark Bowling

Written by: Mark Bowling
Catholic Church Insurance

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