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Expert panel tackle philosophical issues of voluntary assisted dying

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Tragedy: “In the future, at least sometimes, my friends in palliative care will feel very sad when one of their patients ends their life prematurely before natural death.”

A PANEL of experts delves deep into the complex, tricky and deeply philosophical issues underpinning voluntary assisted dying, that MPs could voted into law in Queensland early next year.

A YouTube video of their discussion is compelling viewing for anyone wanting to understand the case against euthanasia fully, especially since Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk last week announced that legislation to allow voluntary assisted dying (VAD) would be fast-tracked into state parliament in February if her government is returned.

Brisbane journalist and author Madonna King has spoken to medical experts, religious leaders and advocates exploring the key euthanasia issues and how VAD could dramatically change life, and death, in Queensland.

The panellists include: Ms Samantha Connor (Disability Rights Advocate – Western Australia); Dr Phillip Good (Palliative Medicine Specialist – St Vincent’s Private Hospital Brisbane); Dr Judith McEniery (Retired Palliative Medicine Specialist); Darlene Dreise (chair, St Vincent’s Health Reconciliation Action Plan); Professor Jane Turner (Psycho-Oncologist, Professor and Course Coordinator – UQ Royal Brisbane), as well as Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge and Jesuit Father Frank Brennan (rector at Newman College, University of Melbourne).

The word dignity emerged, as did the importance of accompanying loved ones facing death and creating meaning from the experience for both patients and their families.

Dr McEniery made an important observation about contemporary sensibilities.

“I guess it comes up for many people they don’t see death and our whole community is so unfamiliar these days with what is normal dying, what happens as people get older get frailer, accumulate multiple diagnoses and something happens that brings them to the close of their life,” Dr McEniery said.

Samantha Connor, a wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy, has another, particular perspective about dignity and the disability community.

“We’re a community of people who live with support in ways that people would normally regard as being a burden, or without dignity, but we do live with dignity,” Ms Connor said.

Archbishop Coleridge said he was in favour of individual autonomy – “one of the great triumphs of the west” – but to think that euthanasia should be considered only as “a deeply personal decision is to have a hopelessly one-dimensional view of the human person”.

“It’s also intensely communal and that’s why people like me speak what often sounds like a foreign language, the language of the common good,” he said.

“An individual’s decision to favor suicide and the decision of others to co-operate in that amounts to a kind of poisoning of the wells in the entire society, it’s not just about the individual or those who collaborate in the event of killing or dying, it does affect the entire society.”

“I think that this kind of legislation with its slippery language where you have words like dignity and compassion and freedom used and used a great deal but not always in a transparent way.”

Dr McEniery said there was an awful lot of ignorance about what assisted dying involved and what it was.

“People think it’s the equivalent of say turning off a respirator or not having treatment or not being able to use pain relief generously when someone is distressed and that leads people to say I want access to being knocked off because I don’t want to go through that sort of distress,” she said.

“And they don’t realise that there are already laws that allow doctors and others in the palliative care team to address that sort of distress.”

Professor Jane Turner said if people had access to good quality palliative care she wondered whether calls for euthanasia would be “so much less”.

“The problem is people don’t know what they don’t know and that’s the issue… people facing end of life who are facing existential grief despair demoralisation don’t realise that there are things that can be done to help them and so why wouldn’t they ask for them because they don’t know those things exist,” she said.

Despite election promises, Fr Brennan questioned politicians’ commitment to introduce palliative care service in much of rural Queensland.

“It will suit the politicians at the moment to say that we’re more committed than ever to palliative care but that will simply be a foil for wanting to implement their legislation for VAD,” Fr Brennan said.

“… in the absence of comprehensive palliative care it’s just not good enough.”

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