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Our parliament must respect public opinion on a right to die for the terminally ill

13 September 2014 One Comment

EIGHTY-FIVE per cent of Australians support the idea that a human being who is terminally ill, with no hope of recovery, should be able to get medical assistance to die. Moreover, there are plenty of medical practitioners who would be willing to provide this ­assistance.

This is the reality of today’s Australia. As a baby boomer entering my twilight years, I have a vested interest in our federal parliament facing up to this reality and passing the necessary legislation without undue delay.

The Medical Board of Australia’s suspension of Philip Nitschke, the well-known voluntary euthanasia campaigner, from practising medicine does not relate directly to a patient with a terminal illness. My concern is that this suspension, rather than the board standing in the way of letting terminally ill patients decide for themselves how they choose to die, has become the major issue.

As things stand today, many Australians diagnosed with a terminal illness have to weigh up the risks of going into hospital or hospice care, where the federal parliament and the Medical Board of Australia decree they must live out their illness regardless of the costs to themselves or to the ­taxpayer.

And this doesn’t include the pain of friends and family who know that their loved one wants to be released rather than to be trapped in a prolonged death simply to satisfy an outdated law.

If the terminally ill decline hospital care they are then required to end their lives even earlier than necessary because they must be fit enough to do so without assistance. Unassisted suicide by the terminally ill not only requires them to die alone but also to find a way of killing themselves.

It is little wonder that the vast majority of Australians regard it as much more humane to allow the terminally ill to make good use of hospital and hospice care, safe in the knowledge that when they decide for themselves that enough is enough they can get medical assistance to help them die.

A medical tribunal in the Northern Territory will hear Nitschke’s appeal in November. But for the terminally ill there is no hearing date. For them the inhumanely stark choice remains: do I kill myself while I still have the chance or do I place myself at the mercy of the Medical Board of Australia and parliament?

“Life is inestimably precious and should be protected, Melbourne’s The Age editorialised in July, adding that a number of terminally ill people should have a right to physician-assisted death “in strictly defined circumstances. At the same time it applauded the Medical Board of Australia for suspending Nitschke from practising medicine — because, the newspaper argued, through his organisation, Exit International, “he aids people who are not terminally ill.

However, it seems to me that the crucial question is whether “the protection of life should require terminally ill Australians to be denied the opportunity to choose for themselves a medically assisted death, and thereby being forced to live out their terminal illness through to its bitter end.

This is the question that voluntary euthanasia champions such as Nitschke have helped Australians to address.

The results are in. Overwhelmingly we see the lives of the terminally ill as so “inestimably precious that they should be protected with the right to choose to receive medical assistance to end their lives when they have had enough.

As a lad from country South Australia who long ago chose to make the Northern Territory his home, Dr Nitschke — are we still allowed to call him that given his medical registration is suspended? — has never been a friend of the establishment.

From his time working with Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people out at Wave Hill — an ­effort that led to Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam handing the land back to its traditional owners — to his opposition to American nuclear submarines visiting Darwin Harbour, Nitschke seems never to have worried about ruffling the wrong feathers.

For some in the media, it seems that being reminded by Nitschke that suicide is not against the law has stretched the voluntary euthanasia debate one step too far.

For nearly two decades, Nitschke has stuck to his guns in the voluntary euthanasia debate, little lamenting the relaxed and comfortable life he could have led as a Darwin GP. In his autobiography Nitschke writes that former Territory chief minister Marshall Perron once told him that “if you’re copping the shit, you’re right over the target.

I am indeed grateful to euthanasia activists such as Nitschke, but at the end of the day it is the rights of the terminally ill that should have centre stage.

It is time for our federal parliamentarians to listen to their fellow Australians. Overwhelmingly we want our 76 senators and our 150 members of the House of Representatives to have a free vote on legalising medically assisted death for terminally ill Australians who want to exercise this choice.

Ross Fitzgerald is the emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 36 books.

‘The Weekend Australian’, September 13-14, 2014, Inquirer p 24.

One Comment »

  • David Muir said:

    Make choice to die a right

    I AM part of the 85 per cent of Australian people indicated by Ross Fitzgerald (“Our parliament must respect public opinion on a right to die for the terminally ill’’, 13-14/9) who want the parliament to allow terminally ill people the human right of choice to die rather than degrade and suffer.

    A free vote in both houses of parliament is the way to go on this most important social issue.

    Parliamentarians should remember that euthanasia will not be compulsory, and should consider that they ought not foist their own beliefs on others.

    David Muir, Indooroopilly, Qld

    Letter to the Editor, The Australian, September 15, 2014, Commentary p 13.

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