Various professionals and campaigners have revived the contentious euthanasia debate, following last week’s episode of Q&A.
The episode featured a panel of Australian euthanasia advocates and oppositional spokespeople, with pro-campaigner Andrew Denton criticising Australia’s existing legislation. Denton compared euthanasia to palliative sedation, claiming there was no moral distinction between the two.
Liz Jacka, Spokesperson for Dying with Dignity NSW, told The Newsroom she agreed with Denton’s view of terminal sedation, claiming it only brings more pain and suffering to the individuals and their families.
“In palliative sedation you give a person a heavy dose of some medication or other that renders them unconscious or comatose. That means that they no longer eat and drink, and so they die – possibly of a combination of dehydration, hunger, their disease and the palliative sedation substance over a long period,” she said.
Ms Jacka believes there’s no moral distinction between palliative sedation and giving a person a substance at their request which enables them to die within 30 minutes.
“We hear stories all the time about people who are dying over a much longer period and their anxious relatives are hovering over the bed waiting for the last breath. They’re going home at midnight finding out that the person died at 3am when they weren’t even there. Which is highly distressing. It makes no sense,” said Ms Jacka.
Public opinion not reflected by law
Although 72 per cent of the NSW public is pro-euthanasia, it is still illegal in every Australian state. In 1995 euthanasia was legalised in the Northern Territory, however it was voided by the Euthanasia Laws Act two years later. During this time, Dr Phillip Nitschke, founder of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International, aided three people with their assisted suicides.
Sydney resident Sarah Easy, 19, said she could identify with Ms Jacka’s sentiment. Ms Easy told The Newsroom the experience of losing her grandmother under similar circumstances had made her a passionate advocate for euthanasia.
“My nanna passed away a little over a year ago after battling with cancer. She would constantly tell us that she wanted to die and would ask my dad to please let her die. There was nothing we could do to help her when we decided with the doctors to turn to palliative care and stop giving her the cocktail of strong drugs keeping her alive,” Ms Easy said.
“The nurses then sedated her and stopped giving her nutrients, but still it didn’t end. For 10 long days we would sit in the hospital… her body had to shut itself down, essentially being starved and this is what we were told was the best option. We were at home when my aunty called me to say that she’s passed.
“The doctors were allowed to stop giving the drugs which they knew would kill her, but they couldn’t give her a drug to end her life that would’ve preserved her dignity and saved her so much pain and suffering.”
Associate Professor and spokesperson for Palliative Care Australia, Richard Chye, told The Newsroom he empathised with people in these situations, but asserted euthanasia must remain unavailable.
“Wanting euthanasia for a loved one is a normal emotion when we see our family members suffering, but it is not a substitute for good quality palliative care,” Mr Chye said.
“Terminal sedation is when a patient is actively dying and who has become confused and agitated. The sedative helps them relax and sleep. The drug does not hasten their death, but allows nature to take its comfortable course.”
Palliative sedation v euthanasia
Denton and fellow Q&A panelist and euthanasia advocate Dr Robert Syme both criticised the legitimacy of palliative care practices.
“Palliative care believe that it is ethically acceptable for a patient to choose to hasten their death by refusing treatment including food and water, and starving and dehydrating until they die, which can take weeks, which I’m told is psychologically painful for the people who die and for those watching. But it is ethically unacceptable for a patient to hasten their death by taking a medicine such as they prescribe overseas which will kill them quickly and painlessly,” said Denton.
The renowned TV journalist suggested palliative sedation was a slower form of euthanasia, refuting palliative care professional Ralph McConaghy’s claims that terminal sedation serves as an end to suffering, while euthanasia serves as an end to life.
Dr Syme, an active voice in the pro-euthanasia community, echoed Denton’s view, challenging the belief there is a moral distinction between terminal sedation and euthanasia.
“There have been experts in the field of palliative care who describe terminal sedation as slow euthanasia. What the hell Ralph, do you think I’m doing when I provide someone with medication that might end their life? Do you think I’m intending to kill them or am I intending to relieve their suffering?” Dr Syme said on the ABC show.
Paul Russell, Director of Hope, an anti-euthanasia organisation in Australia, claimed Denton’s assessment of palliative care practices was misleading.
“Andrew gets a little bit naughty… I think he says, ‘Oh well then we starve you to death, or we dehydrate you to death’, implying that the intention of sedation is in fact to kill, which it’s not,” Mr Russell said.
“In situations where a person is dying their system starts to shut down and very often taking in food, or any nutrition at all, won’t be necessarily processed by the stomach. So he’s either poorly informed or he’s being deliberately mischievous. One or the other.”
Mr Russell also clarified the distinction between euthanasia and terminal sedation, claiming it to be a difference of intent and motivation.
“The difference is a very clearly one of intention and one of motivation. One intends that a person dies and the other doesn’t. And you can say that they’re both motivated by compassion. But their intention of how to reach that goal that they want, in other words to alleviate someone’s pain, is totally different,” he said.
The anti-euthanasia campaigner also raised the issue of containment, claiming that if euthanasia was to be legalised, it could spark protest from those who were not eligible.
“I know that Andrew Denton says, “It’s my right to die, it’s my right to choose’. If he wants to play semantics he can, but in reality if we’re talking about rights we’re talking about something that is universal… In my mind, you’re creating a right for a limited number of people,” he said.
“If everybody has a right to die why not people who have mental illness,
and people who are just sick of living?
… I don’t think you can contain it.”
“Now what we’ve seen in The Netherlands is euthanasia by breach in the laws for children. And the argument ultimately was, ‘Well, if everybody has the right to die why not children?’ They have also said recently, ‘If everybody has a right to die why not people who have mental illness, and people who are just sick of living?’… I don’t think you can contain it.”
Alistair Stewart, a solicitor at Schofield King Lawyers told The Newsroom that as a legal professional the topic of euthanasia was one that provided many complications. Like Mr Russell, he claimed “the line” of the haves and have nots of euthanasia eligibility was an ambiguous one.
“Where do you cut the line off? How do you determine how much someone is suffering if you can’t talk to them?” Mr Stewart asked.
“There’s a lot of issues raised by it so the difficulty with the law is that you have to draw the line somewhere and the difficulty with drawing the line somewhere is that you’ll have people falling on one side of the line when they should be on the other and vice versa.” – Sophia Rambaldini
Top picture by Ben Atkinson-James