Dignity for the dying: The public wants it

24th May 2010 - Robin Chapple MLC

Some people criticise politicians for being wishy-washy on issues of importance; following the tides of public opinion rather than standing up for “what’s right.”  I can think of at least one long-debated area where I sometimes wish the Parliamentarians did kowtow to the public mood; voluntary euthanasia.                                                                                    

Anyone who spent any time in Western Australia last year would very likely now have an opinion on this topic.  One man’s heart-rending struggle had everyone talking; that man was Christian Rossiter.

It’s not too often in WA politics you literally deal with life or death issues.  Here, one man was crying out for the law to end his suffering.  After the media spectacle of a Supreme Court case, where his right to refuse being fed through a tube was clarified, Mr Rossiter ultimately succumbed to a chest infection.

Should people like Mr Rossiter, who felt he had no quality of life, be allowed to decide to end their lives with no or minimal government involvement?  Should, instead, a narrower approach be taken where only people with a terminal illness can make this choice?  (remember that Rossiter spastic quadriplegia but was not terminally ill)  Or should the Government never condone the taking of life, no matter what?

I don’t say that those are the only questions to ask about euthanasia; the views are on the topic are varied and often very passionately held.

For me though, the answer was – and still is – quite clear.

An unbounded right to seek medical help to die was too broad.  People could be pressured into making that choice from those who stood to gain.  Those with severe depression might be expressing a wish really only attributable to their condition.

But for people with terminal illnesses, something had to be done.  Twenty five years ago I had watched my mother die in agony and plead for an end to her suffering.  In 2002, after first having been elected to the Upper House, I put forward a Bill to permit voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill patients who wanted that option.  Disappointingly, the Bill was kicked to the side by the Government and not even brought on for a full debate; more on that theme in a moment.

Last year, after I was elected again, we spent months painstakingly reworking that first Bill, adding a raft of safeguards.  If we as a society are to permit the dying to end their suffering if they wish, we must be clear that they come to such a significant decision with a sound mind, without pressure from anyone, and without those involved in the process standing to gain from hastening their death.

On Thursday 20 May I read my new Bill – the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill 2010 – into Parliament.  Will it be passed?  So far, your other State Members of Parliament are mostly unable – or unwilling – to go public with their views.  Will it even be debated?  That is up to the Government, which means ultimately it’s up to all people who want the Parliament to have this discussion and make their ultimate ruling.  If you want your voice heard, tell your local MP.  If you need their contact information, just ask me for it!

One thing’s for sure though; the public’s view is already clear.  In October 2009, Newspoll declared that 87 per cent of Western Australians supported voluntary euthanasia.  Interestingly, this figure increases to 92 per cent in regional Western Australia; maybe those earthy country folk are more able to let go when it’s obvious that death has become inevitable.

It is widely acknowledged that sometimes as death comes closer, even with advancements in palliative care, no amount of painkillers is enough to stop the pain and no amount of sedatives is enough to provide relief.  In such cases, as Dr Rodney Syme has said, a right to live need not include an obligation to do so under every circumstance.

Here’s hoping we have the debate, and when we do, here’s hoping we extend a compassionate hand to the dying.

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