Euthanasia or not euthanasia – that is the question

Two of my senior friends, both in their 80s, said at dinner the other night that they believed in euthanasia. I

Two of my senior friends, both in their 80s, said at dinner the other night that they believed in euthanasia. I am assuming that they were meaning voluntary euthanasia in respect of their own lives. The conversation arose around a distant relative who was languishing in an aged care facility. This person is 104 and no longer has any quality to life. Over the last 12 months she had stopped any involvement in life and was no longer watching TV, listening to radio and communicating very little. Her memory and recognition of people she knows is problematic. She was found on visits to the facility asleep with her head drooped.

Euthanasia is not an option in Australia. It is a criminal offence. It is too controversial and complex an issue for our timid politicians. It has been raised a number of times in private member’s bills and it has now been placed in the too hard basket. There are not many places in the world where euthanasia is legal. Only in the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Colombia and Luxembourg is euthanasia lawful. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Albania and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Montana and California.

We are living longer. It’s a statistical reality. According to the ABS between 1994 and 2014, the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over increased from 11.8% to 14.7%. This group is projected to increase more rapidly over the next decade. Over the past two decades, the number of persons aged 85 years and over increased by 153%, compared with a total population growth of 32% over the same period. Over the past two decades, the number of centenarians increased by 263%, reflecting an increase in life expectancy for both males and females during the period. In the year ending 30 June 2014, the number of people aged 85 years and over increased by 19,200 people (4.4%) to reach 456,500.

It is great that advances in medical technology can keep us alive longer. A grandparent recently told me that his father was the recipient of a pacemaker. His father is 91. Knee and hip replacements are common operations in seniors. We seem to be surviving past our due by date (whatever that may be?) The consequences are more chronic illnesses towards the end of life and an increased health cost in the last two years of life. The elderly become patients either in their own homes or in nursing homes. The deterioration in health becomes a heartache to close relatives and the issues around homecare and eventually being placed in a nursing home can be distressing. It is questionable whether there will be enough nursing home beds to accommodate the future frail aged.

However, it seems to me lack of quality of life alone is not a justification for any life ending scenario. Terminal illness and constant suffering as in the end days of cancer is another matter. My two senior friends may not be aware that euthanasia if it was lawful could either be active or passive. That is actively administering or assisting in the demise of another or passively not providing drugs or medication resulting in death. The consequences of passive euthanasia defeats the purpose because it causes more suffering. I am aware of a situation in which a person in a vegetative state in accordance with a court order did not have a feeding tube replaced when it came adrift. Much to the horror of staff and family members it took 12 days for the person to die or literally starve to death.

Personally, if I had a terminal illness and was suffering, I would opt to go sooner than later.

What are your thoughts on this controversial topic?