Assisted Suicide & Euthanasia: A Battle We Must Be Ready For

In light of the renewed push towards assisted dying and euthanasia legislation for NSW, I thought it was timely to pause in our series on the abortion bill and provide a refresher on what this legislation would mean for our state.

Any law permitting assisted suicide is inherently unsafe and unjust.  Such a regime, if enacted in NSW, will put vulnerable people at risk, undermine suicide prevention strategies, devalue the lives of the elderly exposing them to a greater risk of elder abuse, further devalue the lives of people with disabilities, diminish the role of health care and palliative care services, and jeopardise regional and indigenous health and social service agendas.

Only seventeen jurisdictions in the world have embarked on an assisted suicide and/or euthanasia regime, including the first short-lived attempt to introduce it in the Northern Territory (1996-1997) which was overturned after four people, who have been described as ‘fatigued, frail and depressed’ died in a 9-month period in an area where palliative care was underdeveloped.

Then there is Oregon, where over half the people who opt in sight “being a burden” as their major issue and 1 in 20 use financial considerations as a reason in their request to die.

The most famous example is perhaps Switzerland, where international suicide tourism is big business and “weariness of life” is an accepted reason to request suicide.

In Belgium euthanasia now accounts for 2% of all deaths in the country, where people with psychiatric disorders, PTSD and children as young as 9 are now eligible.  In the Netherlands, euthanasia is so well established it accounts for 1 in 16 deaths of people over 60.

Lesser known is the jurisdiction of Hawaii which conducts assisted suicide consultations over the phone.  Quite a difference from the lifesaving work of Lifeline – imagine being depressed and calling the wrong number.

Victoria’s assisted suicide regime which moved into its implementation phase in June this year is one of the more modern regimes.  Western Australian parliament from all reports is poised to pass even more ‘liberal’ legislation by the end of this month.

We are facing an uphill battle in NSW should similar legislation be tabled here.  Unfortunately, in the election earlier this year we lost many of our more Life-orientated politicians (as evidenced in the overwhelming vote for the recent abortion bill in the upper house).  There are less politicians who believe it is their job to protect the lives of their constituents and to prevent unnecessary and untimely deaths.

At least with this debate we have the medical associations on our side.  In fact, out of 109 medical associations across the world, 107 have come out against assisted suicide and euthanasia.  The World Medical Association have directly condemned the legislation passed in Australia to date.

The biggest argument we hear during debates for assisted suicide and euthanasia revolve around  unrelieved pain.  However, at the Voluntary Assisted Dying Implementation Conference held in May this year,  there was public acknowledgement that euthanasia is primarily carried out for “existential suffering” and not because of the inadequacy of palliative care in treating pain or other physical symptoms.  Dr Downar, a Canadian physician who euthanises patients regularly, made this observation to Victorians at the conference from a position of first-hand experience. 

Elder abuse, which may lead to coercion and pressure to take one’s own life through a state-sanctioned regime – is a reality not actively screened for in Victoria where the scheme is now in operation.  At the Implementation Conference one prominent practitioner went so far as to reject the existence of bullying of this kind, even though it is openly acknowledged by international champions of assisted suicide, like Dr Henry Marsch, a well-known British neurosurgeon who stated: 

Even if a few grannies are bullied into committing suicide, isn’t that a price worth paying so that all these other people can die … ? 

Dr Henry Marsch

And one final point which advocates for assisted suicide and euthanasia seem to ignore:  Death is final.  There is no coming back if a cure is found, if your diagnosis is wrong, if your prognosis is wrong, or if a renewed purpose for your life is just around the corner.  A dear friend of mine, the late Dr Christopher Newell, once described to me that at his darkest hour, when he was told he had only a few months to live, he contemplated suicide.  If the option of state sanctioned suicide had been available to him – he may well have taken it.  However, I met him years later when he had survived, grateful for his misdiagnosis and recovery because he then went on to marry and have a child.  Such stories are not unheard of but are so often overlooked in these debates.

Those of us who are opposed to the implementation of a state sanctioned death-permit regime in NSW need to be strong enough, vocal enough and, quite simply, care enough, to speak out; to speak against; and to speak the Truth.

Dr Rachel Carling, CEO, Right to Life NSW

Over the coming months we will have the opportunity to rally against the implementation of assisted suicide and euthanasia regimes. This is a battle we must be ready for.