Taking new avenues in the euthanasia debate

Euthanasia and assisted dying is back on the agenda – if indeed it was ever really off the table. The Senate is currently considering a draft Bill sponsored by the Greens which would enshrine a "dying with dignity medical service", and authorise physicians to "prescribe, prepare and/or administer a substance that would assists a terminally ill person to end their life in a human manner".

Also before the Parliament is a bipartisan private members' Bill which seeks to repeal the so-called Andrews Bill, the 1997 law banning the territories from legislating on euthanasia. And here in Canberra, Dying with Dignity ACT is looking for someone "with a three- to five-year lifespan" who is prepared to take part in a legal challenge against the Commonwealth's prohibition on voluntary assisted dying and suicide, a ban the group argues is a violation of people's human rights.

Apart from a brief two years in the mid-1990s when the Northern Territory allowed doctor-assisted suicide (a pioneering social experiment swiftly terminated by the Andrews Bill), euthanasia was and remains illegal in Australia. That's not to say the practice is unknown. Day-in and day-out, doctors around the country practise euthanasia, with the tacit consent of relatives and where the prospect of recovery is nil. A patient can also exercise a right to die by refusing treatment, even food or drink, though obviously not without pain and distress.

But as modern medicine has equipped itself to keep more people alive for longer, the debate has become more focused and polarised. Many people argue that if an individual has no hope of living a normal functioning life, or of getting better, and if their suffering cannot be relieved, then it is barbaric for them to be forced to live on against their will.

The counter argument is that palliative care can relieve nearly all pain symptoms, and that doctors (and relatives) have no right to play God, especially with the weak, vulnerable and the mute. Legalising voluntary euthanasia would, say opponents, open the way for families to dispatch elderly relatives regarded as burdensome or because they wanted to realise their inheritances sooner. And, it could never truly be controlled, as evidence from the Netherlands (where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is legal and where there seems to have some deliberate under-reporting of activity) seems to suggest.

The intensity of the ethical debate around euthanasia sometimes overlooks the fact that living wills, empathy, and common sense ought to be sufficient to deal with assisted dying. But in an age when the latter qualities are frequently rare (and where doctors and nurses still fear breaking the law), it makes sense for legislators to enact safeguards to protect patients and the elderly.

But as the Andrews Bill shows, however, federal MPs (and state politicians for that matter) prefer the status quo. Little wonder Dying with Dignity is resorting to judicial solutions. It may be the only thing that compels governments to finally act.