Professor the Hon Bob Carr
I write following comments reportedly by you, claiming that legalising voluntary euthanasia could make it harder for doctors to help suffering patients to die. Also that, quote “Can we guard against the prospect of the approving physician of being so nervous of litigation they might be more reluctant, not less reluctant.”
As the architect of the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act and having followed closely the worldwide movement towards decriminalising medical assistance to die over the past 20 years, I have some insight into this issue.
Your comments convey the view that the status quo is preferable to defining the rights, circumstances and oversight of doctors deliberately hastening the death of incurably ill patients. I believe you are very wrong for the following reasons.
Any doctor who intentionally hastens the death of a patient, even by minutes, is technically guilty of murder under the law in every state in Australia. It occurs every day and it is untenable that we expect doctors to risk their careers and liberty in this way.
In most, if not all of these deaths, the patient has not given consent because they were in no condition to do so at the time their life was shortened. To protect themselves, doctors must be satisfied the suffering is so extreme that neither the family, nurses of other witnesses will complain. That we condone a system that requires a patient to endure pain and misery way beyond tolerance before relief is given is a disgrace.
We are referring of course, to cases where the capacity of modern drugs has been exhausted. Only death can stop the suffering.
The law on assisted suicide today prohibits frank discussion between patients, families and doctors. As desperate as a patient may be to ask for a quick death, or for family to demand an end be put to pointless unrelenting suffering, they will get no response from a doctor other than an undertaking to ‘Do what I can to relieve suffering’. Frank discussion is impossible. Doctors are not going to risk being reported as having agreed to hasten a death. The ramifications are severe should that happen.
Doctors who do deliberately shorten life report that death was a result of the underlying disease. They must falsify the death certificate in this way as to be honest would have them under investigation. Is this how we believe doctors should be required to conduct themselves?
Contrary to your point about doctors being more reluctant to be involved in hastening death if (voluntary) euthanasia was legalised, they would be far less vulnerable than they are today.
Firstly, their right to not participate would be protected. The involvement of all parties, patient, doctors, nurses, chemist, witnesses is required to be voluntary and free from coercion. Open frank discussions could be held between all parties without fear of recrimination.
A doctor agreeing to a patient’s request, following regulated procedures and subject to oversight, would be far less likely to encounter litigation than today, where communication is minimal, no records kept and in the absence of witnesses.
I conclude with an appeal for you to reconsider your opposition to law reform on the basis that it is inevitable that voluntary euthanasia will be legalised here at some time. The case for, the aging population and the success of regimes elsewhere, will demand it.
There are now ten jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal. California and Canada joined their ranks this June bringing the population covered to over 100 million. Oregon’s law has been operational for 18 years without the adverse consequences predicted.
Andrew Denton produced an excellent core document, ‘The Damage Done’, explaining why the need for reform in Australia is urgent. http://www.gogentleaustralia.org.au/the_damage_done
The facts are shocking. We can do better.
Former NT Chief Minister 1988 – 95