Last night about one hundred people gathered at the Ballina RSL to listen to speakers on the very controversial and sensitive subject of euthanasia.
Greens MP Cate Faehrmann is currently on a tour of regional NSW holding community information evenings about her Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill. The proposed legislation would ensure that a patient who has a terminal illness and who is experiencing unacceptable pain or suffering can receive assistance to end their life if that is their wish. This assistance would take the form of the provision of a substance that the patient would themselves administer, or, in the case of severe physical disability, be provided assistance to administer.
Guest speakers for the evening were Colleen Cartwright, foundation professor of aged services and designer of the Advance Health Directive and Enduring Power of Attorney forms in Queensland, and Philip Nitschke a medical doctor, humanist, author and founder and director of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International. Nitschke is known worldwide for his work with terminally ill people in the quest for dignity during the end-of-life process and for assisting four people in ending their lives in the Northern Territory.
The travelling forum, titled Dying With Dignity: Your Right to Choose?, is an opportunity for people on the north coast to get their questions answered about the complex issue of voluntary euthanasia. ‘In spite of the availability of the best palliative care, some terminally ill people endure intolerable pain, suffering and loss of dignity at the end of their lives,’ says Ms Faehrmann. ‘That’s why greater choice for patients at the end of life is so important.’
Ms Cartwright spoke to those gathered of the ethical and legal issues relating to care at the end of life, including advance care planning, informed consent and capacity, issues for carers and the special challenges of caring for people with dementia.
Dr Nitschke spoke of the drug Nembutal, which was widely available over the counter in the 1950s as a ‘mothers-little-helper’ for headaches and pain, and even as a soother for teething babies. Dr Nitschke said the drug, which is the best option for assisted suicide, is now prohibited in Australia.
Dr Nitschke, who is the author of The Peaceful Pill Handbook, the only book to be banned in this country in the last 35 years, said that the situation for those seeking assisted death in Australia is disgusting.
Ms Faehrmann says her bill would give terminally ill people, under certain circumstances, the right to die a dignified death at a time and place of their own choosing if that is their wish. ‘I know this is a sensitive and sometimes controversial issue but it has overwhelming public support and I know people want to know more. That’s why I’m touring the state to explain my Bill.’
As part of the Bill, to receive assistance patients would have to meet strict criteria.
The patient would need to:
• be at least 18 years old
• be suffering from a terminal illness that is causing severe pain or distress unacceptable to the patient
• be fully mentally capable and able to make informed decisions
• be a resident of NSW
• have been fully informed of the diagnosis and prognosis of their disease and other options, including palliative care.
The process would involve a number of stringent safeguards including:
• The patient would have to be examined by two medical practitioners who would certify that the patient met the eligibility criteria.
• A psychiatrist would have to certify the patient was able to make an informed decision, and was not under any duress to make the request for assisted dying. A qualified social worker may also be consulted during this assessment.
• It would be a requirement that none of the health professionals involved (or their close associates) stood to receive any financial benefit from the patient’s death.
• There would be severe criminal penalties for coercion of the patient or any of the doctors by another party.
• The patient can change their mind at any stage of the process.
• No health professionals would be compelled to participate in an assisted dying process.
• A review process would be established to oversee the process and to ensure compliance. This body will provide an annual report to parliament.
• The drugs used in the assisted dying process will be subject to strict storage and supply rules.