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Palliative care for older Queenslanders in regional and rural areas in critical need

Call to care: “Access to palliative care for older Queenslanders receiving aged care, especially in regional and rural settings, is a critical area of need.”

How we respect and treat some of our most vulnerable – our sick, aged, and terminally ill – is a vital consideration for many Queenslanders preparing to vote.

After years of heated and polarizing debate, it will be the state MPs we elect on October 31 who decide whether to back legislation aiming to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

Voluntary Assisted Dying legislation is already drafted and with The Queensland Law Reform Commission for review, and could be presented to the parliament as early as March next year.

The Queensland bishops’ election statement prepared for voters and politicians alike made it crystal clear that recognising human dignity was to value the lives of all people, including those at the beginning and the end of life.

Queensland already has some of the harshest abortion laws, and could potentially join a handful of countries and jurisdictions that allows euthanasia.

“Euthanasia and assisted suicide puts some of the most vulnerable people in our community at risk by endorsing – even in law – the judgement that some people’s lives are no longer of value,” Queensland’s five bishops said in a statement launched in St Stephen’s Cathedral on September 7.

Instead, the bishops make a united call for the Queensland government to urgently provide better funding and resourcing for palliative care for all, not just a few.

“Access to palliative care for older Queenslanders receiving aged care, especially in regional and rural settings, is a critical area of need,” the statement said.

“There is a dark irony in this at a time when the shadow of death looms over us at this particular time of crisis and the Government’s target of halving suicide rates in Queensland by 2026.”

Jim Varghese, a member of the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s anti-euthanasia taskforce, welcomed the bishops’ statement, particularly the emphasis on human dignity and the critical need for palliative care to be made available across the state.

“It is a really good, clear articulation of Catholic teaching and one that is very important that the Catholic community understands that in the public interest we cannot have voluntary assisted death,” he said.

“It is in the public interest that people die peacefully – we are not prolonging life for the sake of prolonging life but we are there for good palliative care, dying peacefully and respecting human life.”

Just as Queenslander voters face hard decisions, so too New Zealanders head to the polls on October 17 for a general election and to vote in a referendum on the End of Life Choice Act 2019, which requires a binding referendum to come into force.

For New Zealanders, even those that support euthanasia, there’s a warning from a leading Catholic ethicist that the proposed law is “poorly drafted, dangerous and flawed”.

Dr John Kleinsman, director of the Nathaniel Centre, the bioethics think-tank established by New Zealand’s Catholic bishops, has highlighted a number of glaring problems with the EOLC Act that include: “No requirement for a person to talk about their decision with a trusted family member or friend; no mandatory cooling off period as in other countries – a person could be dead less than four days after diagnosis; no need for independent witnesses; a lack of safeguards and process for detecting coercion as well as depression; and no requirement that a person be competent at the time they make the final decision to take the lethal drugs”.

Similar risks linger for Queensland, with the final shape of legislation still under review, yet to be decided.

Education Minister Grace Grace who attended the bishops’ launch, admitted that she “hadn’t seen the legislation come through yet … But we will make sure it is a balanced report which of course provides for palliative care.”

She said palliative care was an essential part of the human dignity talked about in the bishops’ statement.

That said, it is Labor policy that steered government MPs to back euthanasia laws in the first place.

Opposition leader Deb Frecklington, said she believed everyone was entitled to “the best experience” at the end of life.

“That means improved palliative care – that is exactly where I stand,” she said after the bishops’ statement launch.

“As the leader of the LNP, I have been very clear that my MPs have a conscience vote on this issue… elected officials should reflect what their community is telling them.”

Queensland voters and politicians could do well to read Dr Kleinsman’s analysis of New Zealand’s proposed euthanasia legislation, and his “deeper reasons” to oppose it.

“The fundamental danger associated with legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide in New Zealand is that we would cross a Rubicon – a line of no-return – by creating, in law as well as in people’s minds, a class of people – those with a terminal illness – who are set apart; a group whose lives are deemed no longer worth protecting in the way we protect other lives; a group for whom it is not just understandable, but logical that they might want to end their lives prematurely; a group for whom assisted death is sanctioned and will be facilitated by the State and, more specifically, by the State’s own publicly funded health system – ironically, the same under-pressure health system charged with simultaneously funding and providing care for people with a terminal illness,” he wrote in the latest issue of The Nathaniel Report.

Dr Kleinsman claimed in jurisdictions that had already legalised medically assisted dying, there was a continuing and exponential growth in the numbers of people accessing euthanasia and physician-assisted death.

He says this indicates that, in a relatively short period of time, the practice shifts from an act of last resort for terminal illness to becoming “the default way to die.”

Perhaps as a portent of this trend Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board recently reported 124 deaths by assisted suicide and euthanasia during its first year.

It was a result that far outstripped a prediction from the Victoria’s Health Minister, Jenny Mikakos, that death would be as low as “a dozen” during the first 12 months.

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