Assistance in Dying
Every one of us lives in networks of relationship throughout our lives. Even if we occasionally feel lonely, none of us really lives alone – and no-one needs to die alone. Just as we all need assistance to flourish in living, so we all need assistance to negotiate dying.
Palliative care provides comfort and care for people on their personal journey, however long or short that might be. It offers medical, psychological, relational, spiritual and social support that is tailored to the needs of the individual. It supports a person in many ways as their time with family, friends, and loved ones draws to an end.
Today when expert palliative care is accessed in good time, harrowing deaths and traumatic suffering almost never occur. Certainly there is always more that best palliative care can provide to make the patient’s life remaining pain-free and comfortable.
Today, with continual improvements being made in palliative care and pain control, no-one needs to suffer the kind of harrowing death that some of us remember from years past.
To support euthanasia or ‘assisted dying’ today is to propose a solution to a problem that simply does not exist – or would not exist if Government provided all of our citizens, especially in rural and remote areas, with equal access to best palliative care.
“Assisted dying” (or “assisted suicide”) covers a range of situations in which one person (often a doctor) provides material help so that the patient can end their own life. “Material help” from a doctor might include writing a prescription for lethal drugs, providing these drugs and even instructing the patient how to use these drugs to end their life.
Currently it is unlawful to assist any person to commit suicide. Any legislation to allow “assisted dying” will require our society to change its stance on assisting suicide.
Assisted suicide is not the neat and tidy matter some people believe. Proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide usually point to the legislative regime in Oregon USA as a model that works.
But Oregon’s own State government reports show “problems with completion” in assisted deaths: some patients regurgitate their lethal prescriptions, endure lengthy unconsciousness, or regain consciousness and die weeks later of their underlying illness. Clearly this is not “death with dignity”.
Sometimes the push to “do something to end this” ends up by pressing a doctor to intervene and “complete” the suicide – or to provide “euthanasia”.
“Euthanasia” is any action which of itself and by intention causes death, with the aim of ending suffering.
Euthanasia requires one person (often a doctor) to take an action which causes another person (“the patient”) to die. “Voluntary euthanasia” is when this happens at the patient’s request. Otherwise, it is “involuntary euthanasia”.
Either way, one person intentionally kills another – in fact “euthanasia” is still sometimes called “mercy killing”.
An important question for the WA Parliament is how to define “euthanasia” in order to differentiate it from “willful murder”.
Problems with Euthanasia
Problems with framing and controlling legislation. It is notoriously difficult to define who should be able to access euthanasia, and the circumstances under which it can be accessed, and to establish effective monitoring and governance of this practice over time. It has also proven impossible to restrict access to euthanasia for only the terminally ill: proponents always say “the laws don’t go far enough”, so pressure mounts to loosen restrictions over and over again.
Problems with involving the medical professions as active agents of euthanasia. Doctors have our respect because they are sworn to promote and protect our lives, and never to destroy them. Wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide have been introduced – including in Oregon – doctors experience stresses and tensions that cause them damage, because most human beings have a natural aversion to killing other people.
Unintended effects of euthanasia laws. Societies that permit euthanasia and assisted suicide frequently experience other unexpected effects, such as higher (rather than lower) incidence of suicide; and among disabled and aged populations, a heightened sense of vulnerability.
 Prof Aaron Kheriaty maintains that by 2010, “suicide rates were 35% higher in Oregon then the national average.”
Other research in the United States found that legalising assisted suicide was associated with “a significant increase in total suicides” of 6.3% and up to 14.5% for individuals aged over 65 years.
Professor Theo Boer, one of the founders of assisted dying in The Netherlands, notes a similar effect: “Contrary to the claims made by many, the Dutch law did not bring down the number of suicides; instead suicides went up by 35% over the last six years.”