Path clear to enact the right to assisted death
Date November 14, 2014
For the past week, The Age has published in the pages of the newspaper and across our digital platforms a comprehensive series of reports, videos, opinions and contributions from our readers to advocate for the right of terminally ill people to choose, under rigorously regulated circumstances, the timing and manner of their death.
We began the coverage with an editorial urging the Federal Parliament to enshrine this right in law, and with a video testimony by a terminally ill Melbourne man, Peter Short, whose campaign for choice inspired Greens senator Richard Di Natale to propose legislation that would legalise strictly controlled physician-assisted death. We believe that what has been presented in the past five days has established and indeed buttressed the case for change, and today we underscore and amplify our call on our lawmakers to act by debating, honing and then passing Senator Di Natale’s bill. Not only should every lawmaker have an unfettered vote on this, but our political leaders ought to urge support for the change.
The very day our series started, the cross-party Senate committee that had been receiving submissions and holding nationwide hearings on the proposed legislation declared that it, too, supports a free vote. The committee’s chairman, Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, said his mother’s prolonged demise had partly shaped his view that terminally ill people should have a right to assisted death, provided the law has adequate safeguards. We believe foreign experience demonstrates that such protections, importantly including for those with mental illness, can be constructed.
Surveys have long revealed significant majority support across the Australian community for such change. This was again apparent yesterday, when we published a Fairfax/Ipsos poll indicating as many as three out of four people believe those suffering from incurable illness ought to have access to physician-assisted death. This belief was clear, too, in our online poll. We have been buoyed by the community’s participation during the past week, and would like to thank all those who contributed. People have shared profoundly moving stories, creating a compelling and even cathartic compendium. We urge those who might doubt the need for legislation to review the collection on our website.
There surely can be no more of a universal issue; death is the only certainty for each of us. Perhaps the most powerful argument for change is that, while the majority of those who are given the option of physician-assisted death do not actually use it, everyone who has the option benefits immediately because it alleviates fear and anxiety. This is clear in those places overseas where physician-assisted death is legal, and in Australia, where it is being practised by compassionate medicos at their undue legal peril. One such doctor, and a leading advocate for choice, Rodney Syme, openly and courageously admits having helped many terminally ill people find peace and relief by giving them the means and knowledge to end their own life.
We again stress that we do not support voluntary euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke, because through his organisation, Exit International, he aids people who are not terminally ill to die by suicide. It is in the public interest to pass a law that permits doctors such as Dr Syme to offer relief to terminally ill patients, many of whom suffer excruciating physical and psychological pain, but prevents those like Dr Nitschke from facilitating the death of people who should instead receive treatment.
Life is precious, and should be protected – but not at all cost. We believe the past week has indicated a strong and pivotal nexus of support between the community and its elected representatives for a law to respect the right to this humane choice. The way is clear for change, and the time to act has arrived.