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Assisted dying advocates won’t lie down

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The major parties are being challenged to declare their position on assisted dying after the Australian Greens announced plans to introduce national assisted dying legislation during the current term of Parliament.

As a review of the AMA’s policy on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide reaches its final stages, Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale has flagged his intention to put proposed Dying with Dignity laws up for debate.

“It’s never easy to talk about death, but our political leaders need to have the courage to take on challenging issues, especially when it concerns the rights of every Australian,” Senator Di Natale said. “The Greens believe that patients with intolerable suffering should have the right to have a say in the timing of their death. As a doctor, I know many patients would be comforted just by knowledge that the right existed, even if they never exercised it.”

While history suggests the Greens will fall well short of the support they need to make their Bill law, there is a growing push to make assisted dying legal.

In Victoria, a cross-party parliamentary committee has recommended that assisted dying be legalised for patients with serious and incurable illnesses, and high-profile television producer Andrew Denton has founded Go Gentle Australia to campaign for the right for patient to choose what happens at the end of their life.

In a nationally televised speech, Mr Denton accused conservative politicians from both the major parties of conspiring to thwart efforts to legalise euthanasia, and called on those with religious or moral objections to assisted dying to accept the right of others to have such a choice.

The presenter has urged the adoption of laws that, subject to strict criteria, would provide legal protection for doctors who assisted patients with terminal illness to die.

He said it would not be “a licence to bump off granny”, and would in practice make legal what was “already happening in Australia without regulation, without support, without transparency or accountability and, from the evidence received, sometimes without consent”.

The Greens Bill follows similar legislation in Canada and California.

In Canada, the Trudeau Government has proposed laws to allow adults with serious and irreversible medical conditions to seek a doctor-assisted death. To do so they must apply in writing, with two witnesses, and the request must be evaluated by two doctors or nurses. Once a request is granted there is a mandatory 15-day waiting period.

California has passed laws that allow people with less than six months to live to seek physician-assisted death, subject to assessment that they are of sound mind.

But in the United Kingdom, the House of Commons last year overwhelmingly rejected a similar proposal.

The issue of assisted dying was debated at length at the recent AMA National Conference, where a panel of medical practitioners and a medico-legal expert argued the merits of the idea.

See: On assisted dying

Though there were sharply divergent views on whether or not doctors should be involved in helping patients to die, there was broad agreement that the medical profession could do better in supporting patients, families and friends at the end of life.

The results of an AMA member survey on the issue were discussed at an AMA Federal Council meeting last month, along with issues raised at the National Conference forum and a separate consultation on current AMA policy conducted through the pages of Australian Medicine.

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals working in acute care settings can learn more about caring for patients approaching death and their families through Flinders University’s End-of-Life Essentials package. The free online resource includes three learning modules looking at managing end-of-life issues in hospitals, recognising dying, and communication and decision-making.

The modules can be accessed at: www.caresearch.com.au/EndofLifeEssentials

Adrian Rollins