Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Should We Be Surprised?

The State Attorney General, Lara Giddings, used her Budget Reply Speech to announce that she is going to help Mr Nick McKim (the State Leader of the Greens Political Party) with a Private Member's Bill to legalise Euthanasia. What is so staggering about this is that we have just gone through the process of a Parliamentary Enquiry into Voluntary Euthanasia.

This Parliamentary Committee had received overwhelming evidence that Voluntary Euthanasia would be socially destructive. Faced with very clear findings, the Committee presented a Report to Parliament which demonstrated that in the few overseas jurisdictions where Voluntary Euthanasia had been legalised it had led to utilitarian tragedy. The Report also identified the deep concerns that medical practitioners had for the potential abuse of their patients. The Parliament stood to reject Mr McKim's "Dying With Dignity Bill" as a result. 

I was present during the hearings and heard firsthand the submissions given by doctors and palliative care workers. I was also engaged with supporters of Mr McKim's Bill prior to the hearings. What was disturbing during this engagement and even the hearings themselves, was the dire ignorance regarding palliative care. In fact, the one Greens member of the Committee seemed perplexed when doctors described how they cared for those suffering 'intolerable' pain.

Firstly, these professional carers challenged the fundamental claim behind the proposed Bill - that there were people in intolerable pain. Several doctors working in palliative-care emphatically stated they had never encountered any patient in intolerable pain. Secondly, they described how they treat with great dignity those in incredible pain who are dying. Hearing that the dosage of morphine increased as the pain increased, the Greens politician queried whether this actually hastened the patient's death. The doctor responding to her constrained his annoyance at the veiled allegation by making two points-

  1. Morphine was not given with the intention of ending the patient's life, but with the motive of relieving their pain. 
  2. The overall effect upon a patient in such a condition in hastening their death was negligible (minutes, perhaps hours).

But Ms. O'Connor, the Greens member, put it to the doctor that this kind of treatment was what the Bill was trying to legalise. It was at this point that many of us attending the hearings realised that the Proponents of this Bill did not understand what Palliative Care was.

In fact, I had received emails from supporters of the Bill arguing that Voluntary Euthanasia legislation would allow doctors to do just what this Palliative Care doctor had reported as the general procedure for caring for the dying who were in incredible pain! In other words, what most supporters of this Bill thought the Bill would allow, was actually legal - NOW.

It appeared that most supporters of the Greens' radical Bill did not appreciate how the legislation could be used to end the life of anyone (not just the deceased, the infirmed, the injured, or the deformed). This is what happened in the Northern Territory when they had similar legislation. This is why the Bill there was withdrawn soon after it became obvious how it was being used.

I applaud what I hope is Mr McKim's motive for such legislation: compassion for the suffering and dying. But there is a general myth in the public arena that the current legislative regime means that dying people are kept alive against their will. This general myth is not true. It is also a myth that it is illegal for doctors to treat dying patients in a way that indirectly hastens their inevitable death. I would appeal to Mr McKim and Miss Giddings to not proceed with this radical, dangerous, legislative agenda.

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