David Goodall, 104, will voluntarily end his life today.

Euthanasia debate should focus on safeguards

YOU'D think, in a parliament brimming with ageing Baby Boomers, there would be an additional incentive to have a clear-eyed look at euthanasia.

The emotional issue of assisted suicide is set to flare up again as federal Parliament contemplates a new Bill that would let territories make their own laws on the matter.

It's been more than two decades since the Northern Territory passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.

Just four people used it before Liberal backbencher Kevin Andrews led a federal move to override it.

That ban has remained, but the Senate is set to debate overturning it. So once again we'll go through all the old arguments, and marvel anew at how politicians embed themselves in ideology.

Australian scientist David Goodall at a press conference the day before he ended his life by assisted suicide. (Pic: Sebastien Bozon/AFP)
Australian scientist David Goodall at a press conference the day before he ended his life by assisted suicide. (Pic: Sebastien Bozon/AFP)

The polls consistently show that most Australians want legal, voluntary euthanasia. A range of polls over the last ten years put support at least 70 per cent.

Those people may be swayed by arguments about freedom, but it's more likely they've witnessed first-hand the suffering of loved ones.

Grandparents, parents, even children being effectively starved to death. Struggling with pain, or zonked out of their minds. Surrounded by the acrid smell of Dettol that does not mask worse smells.

The fortunate are cared for, deeply, by compassionate staff. Many, though, are just chores to be ticked off.

So legalising voluntary euthanasia would seem almost inevitable - if it wasn't for the difficulty of getting the right safeguards in place.

How distressing and depressing that because humans can be vile, evil, or negligent we continue to deny people the right to death.

Kevin Andrews led the federal move to override the NT’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. (Pic: Mick Tsikas/AAP)
Kevin Andrews led the federal move to override the NT’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. (Pic: Mick Tsikas/AAP)

We know, thanks to the endless stories of elder abuse, that children cannot always be trusted to act in the best interests of their parents. There are those who physically abuse their parents, who steal from them.

So it would be excessively optimistic to believe there are not people out there who would lean on their parents to just give up the ghost.

We know doctors can make mistakes, or can be swayed by their own experiences. And to give them even more power over life and death could lead to callous decisions.

And we know, thanks to an interminable line of scandals in aged care, that there are people in caring roles who are monsters. Who assault or murder vulnerable people. Just this week we heard more tales of horror in nursing homes, with staff drugging or physically restraining patients.

So people are right to be concerned that normalising euthanasia might give bad people more license. For some, it could devalue the lives of those vulnerable people even further.

People with disabilities, with mental health issues, are particularly at risk.

And it's too easy to make people feel a burden. Harried nurses, exasperated sighs. They add up.

But just because the slippery slope - from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia - exists, it doesn't mean we have to slide down it.

It's not just Parliament that's faced with an ageing population. Australia, and South Australia in particular, is headed for the "Silver Tsunami".

So this issue is not going away.

Australian academic David Goodall had to leave Australia to end his life. He died in Switzerland by voluntary euthanasia in May this year at 104 years old. (Pic: Sean Gallup/Getty)
Australian academic David Goodall had to leave Australia to end his life. He died in Switzerland by voluntary euthanasia in May this year at 104 years old. (Pic: Sean Gallup/Getty)

The debate, then, should be about safeguards. It should be about the systems we have to put in place to stop doctors getting things wrong, to protect people at the end of their lives.

But the anti-euthanasia mob are determined not to let it get to that point. So they've come up with a double-pronged approach.

On the one hand, the previously mentioned argument that people cannot be trusted with voluntary euthanasia.

And on the other hand, that it is not even necessary.

In this Pollyanna vision, everyone is given rolled-gold palliative care so no one ever actually wants to die.

It's not really clear what that would look like. Good drugs, obviously. Outstanding pain management. All the East Terrace mansions converted to five-star hospices. Psychologists, massage therapists, excellent indoor plants. No Dettol smell.

All palliative care workers immediately paid the salary they deserve, enticing thousands more into the industry.

Maybe it could happen. Obviously it should happen. We should absolutely push for everyone to get access to such end-of-life care.

That doesn't mean we don't need voluntary euthanasia laws.

Even with the best treatments in the world, we are talking about dying people. They're not skipping through the daisies (unless the drugs are REALLY good).

Having that amazing care may well persuade some people to linger longer; but others will reach a point where they're done. Just done with life.

And they should have the right to check out of it.

If you need help call Lifeline on 131114 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.



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