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Assisted dying laws spread as euthanasia debate intensifies

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Canada and California are set to join several European countries and US states in legalising doctor-assisted deaths amid calls for Australia to follow suit.

Canada is on track to allow physician-assisted dying from 6 June after the Trudeau Government introduced legislation to the Canadian Parliament, while the practice is set to become law in California on 9 June, nine months after a Bill was passed by the State’s legislature.

The international developments have come as debate about euthanasia in Australia intensifies.

High profile entertainer Andrew Denton has become a passionate advocate for legalising euthanasia, and last week he was joined by former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who said it was “absurd” that patients in pain could not ask their doctor to help end their life.

“I think it is absurd that we should say that it is illegal that a person who is suffering terribly, and is in an irremediable condition, should be forced to continue to suffer,” Mr Hawke said in an interview on Mr Denton’s Better Off Dead podcast series. “It doesn’t meet any requirements of morality or good sense.”

Euthanasia will be debated in a policy session at the annual AMA National Conference next month, and the AMA’s Ethics and Medico-legal Committee is conducting a survey of member views on the issue as part of a review of the peak medical organisation’s policy on assisted dying.

Under the Canadian legislation, only adults with serious and irreversible medical conditions may seek a doctor-assisted death. They must apply in writing, with two witnesses, and the request must be evaluated by two doctors or nurses. Even once a request is granted there is a mandatory 15-day waiting period.

To prevent an influx of people from other countries seeking to avail themselves of the new law, it only applies to those eligible for Canadian Government-funded health services.

Under the new Californian laws, a person seeking assisted death must first have undergone rigorous questioning to determine that they were of sound mind and understood what they were seeking, and two doctors must have agreed that they had less than six months to live.

Opponents often fret that such laws will trigger a rash of doctor-assisted suicides, but experience in areas where they are in place suggests this is unlikely. In almost 20 years since similar legislation came into effect in Oregon, The Economist reported fewer than 1000 people have used it to take their own lives. 

California’s Department of Health Care Services has estimated that in its first year, fewer than 450 seriously ill people will seek a prescription of lethal drugs through the Medicaid program, and even less will actually use them.

Adrian Rollins