A recent survey asked Australians if they supported a doctor “giving a lethal dose when a patient is hopelessly ill with no chance of recovery and asks for a lethal dose”, and 87 percent of respondents were in favour of the move.
Just 10 percent said that doctors should try to keep patients alive, and 3 percent were undecided.
It could be read as a sign that as a nation, our laws don’t necessarily reflect our feelings on this toughest of issues.
The reality is that, as is the case in most developed nations, we are living longer than ever before, and the number of people entering the older demographic groups is increasing. Advances in the science and the medical industry have meant that over the past two decades, the population of people aged 65 years and over has increased from 11.8 percent to 14.7 percent of the total population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Living longer, though, doesn’t mean that we’ve suddenly eradicated terminal illnesses, or that those illnesses won’t continue to strike in our later years, which means the issue of assisted dying won’t go away or be of interest only to a dwindling group of people.
Voluntary euthanasia is currently in the spotlight after a bill was introduced in Victoria to make it accessible for people with a terminal illness. The debate is now about whether the whole of Australia should adopt such a law.
Church leaders have already had their say on the issue, when they submitted a letter to the Victorian Parliament opposing the law, saying the law would undermine doctors.
“Once the fundamental principle to do no harm and never kill is removed from our medical practice, the integrity of our health system is compromised,” the letter read. “It would be counter-productive to legally endorse any form of suicide when our governments and community groups are working so hard to persuade others that it is not a solution to take their own life.”
Many of the main arguments against assisted dying can be found on the Right to Life website. These highlight many of the issues members of the public have with assisted suicide, among them being that it violates the medical code of ethics, undermines doctors’ authority, and encourages ‘suicide tourism’.
Others worry that assisted suicide services could be used not just by those with terminal illnesses but also by those who did not wish to live with serious and permanent disabilities, and those who were suicidal due to mental health issues.
The site also highlights the communities’ so-called moral conscience and makes the case that consent can be a very grey area that could be manipulated to create instances of involuntary euthanasia.
Staunch advocates of voluntary euthanasia include Philip Nitschke and his organisation Exit International, which opens up conversations about assisted dying and provides support for members considering the move.
There are also many celebrities that have passionately put their faces to the cause. Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Hawking, and comedian Ricky Gervais are all outspoken on the issue.
Even Australia politician Pauline Hanson and radio shock jock Derryn Hinch have had their say on the issue, both in favour of assisted euthanasia after watching loved ones suffer.
As Hanson commented during a debate on a private member’s bill, we treat animals more compassionately in euthanising them when necessary, than we do for humans in intolerable pain. She was speaking about her personal experience of watching the impact that Parkinson’s disease had on her father.
Assisted suicide proponents argue that it allows dying people to live their last days and weeks of life in the way they chose, without the worry of expiring in terrible pain or without dignity. It also saves loved ones from the agony of watching a family member suffer, and removes from doctors the responsibility of the decision to hasten death for humanitarian reasons – something some admit in surveys to doing, although such a practice is illegal.
No matter what side of the argument you stand on, there’s a lot of passion on the subject throughout Australia. With Victoria likely to legalise assisted euthanasia, it’s a conversation that’s unlikely to go away.