Andrew Smith, Australian correspondent

News

Tasmanian euthanasia and assisted suicide bill to be debated this week

Andrew Smith, Australian correspondent
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Hobart, Tasmania, Oct. 14 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The Australian state of Tasmania is set to debate a euthanasia and assisted suicide bill starting this coming Wednesday.

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2013, introduced by Premier, Lara Giddings and Nick McKim MP, is strongly considered by its many opponents to be a euthanasia & assisted suicide bill, despite the fact that 'euthanasia' is never mentioned and 'assisted suicide' is only mentioned in a subclause that says it’s not about assisted suicide.

The Premier first announced her intention to introduce legislation as far back as 2010.  In March this year Giddings and McKim released a discussion paper – not on euthanasia & assisted suicide, but on the issue of Voluntary Assisted Dying. The paper was roundly criticised at the time for its bias towards euthanasia & assisted suicide.  Former head of palliative care services in Tasmania and spokesman for the organisation RealDignityTasmania, Dr Paul Dunne, gave the discussion paper scant credibility, stating:

“The paper employs selective and deficient research, much of which is funded by known pro-euthanasia advocates, designed to paint a picture of flawless implementation of legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide systems around the world. The main authorities cited by Giddings and McKim are the result of known pro-euthanasia initiatives. Key evidence has been ignored in this paper.”

Paul Russell, director of the national organisation against euthanasia, HOPE, said the paper was an exercise in ‘gnostic paternalism’. “Not only do the authors give the impression that they have divined all there is to know on the subject, they also seem to expect Tasmanians to trust their judgement and to go along quietly like sheep to the slaughter,” said Mr Russell.

“Essentially what the paper and the bill attempt is to genetically modify euthanasia & assisted suicide into something that appears palatable and reasonable.  But beneath the veneer, the DNA remains the same and the risks to vulnerable people exist in more-or-less the same way as with every other cloned bill.”  Russell’s terminology in that statement reflected Tasmanian pride in its organically grown food production where ‘genetically modified’ is shunned.

The threat of ‘death tourism’, with Australians from the mainland buying a one-way ticket to the island and to their deaths, is said to leave most Tasmanians feeling uneasy.  Previous bills have suffered because of this. 

Giddings and McKim have tried to address these concerns, but even the Premier has admitted to local news that ‘death tourism’ was a possibility.  A visitor from the mainland to Tasmania could possibly qualify as a resident and proceed to their death in as little as ten days.

When Family Voice Australia’s Jim Collins challenged the Premier on this she used her Twitter feed to accuse him of scaremongering.  In a recent twitter discussion she said: “Adequate palliative care services 1st, then #choice “ True. That's what our legislation says too. Last resort only.” Paul Russell disputes this. “The provisions do not require palliative services to be undertaken nor does the bill require that the person is actually terminally ill.  The bill has safety gaps wide enough to drive a hearse through,” Russell stated.

President of the Tasmanian Dignity with Dying group, Margaret Sing, in a letter to the local paper claimed that "… both the people making the voluntary assisted dying request and their doctors must be satisfied that there are no other treatment options to improve the people's condition or to relieve their suffering".  Russell says that the doctor must “discuss” any relevant treatment options, but the existence or otherwise of treatment options and any decision to take them up or not is not a prerequisite.

In fact, as Paul Russell observed on his blog, there’s every possibility that the recent deaths in Belgium of the blind Verbessen twins and the case of Nancy Verhelst whose sex change went wrong, might fit within the scope of the proposed Tasmanian legislation.

Like other bills he has seen, Russell feels that the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill is a recipe for abuse.  Tasmania has a significant and growing problem with Elder Abuse and also recently received a Federal Government grant to upgrade palliative care services which, while excellent, are not currently accessible to every Tasmanian.

Waiting in the wings is Dr Philip Nitschke and his Exit group.  Nitschke promised some time ago that, if the Tasmanian Bill passed, he would set up a clinic in Hobart. There are no provisions in the 52 pages of the bill that would stop such a practice. 

More recently Nitschke has admitted that he doesn’t expect to be greeted well when he visits Hobart this week.  He is seen by the pro-euthanasia state-based groups as something of a pariah.  "There is certainly stress or friction between different groups within the voluntary euthanasia movement," Nitschke told AAP.

The local branch of the Australian Medical Association is firmly opposed to the bill.  Also today, a nationwide group known as Doctors Opposed to Euthanasia sent a letter to all MPs confirming their opposition and criticising the misinformation in Tasmania’s media during the past week about end-of-life issues.  “We become ‘gatekeepers’ to an early and unnatural death.  Much of the medical decision making process pivots on a subjective assessment as to whether or not the patient’s medical condition or degree of distress is ‘eligible’.  We find this extremely objectionable,” said the letter.

Signed by prominent Tasmanian medicos, the doctors also observed that, in a similar way to Oregon and Washington, they expect that most euthanasia cases would be dealt with by a small group of doctors, probably in a list compiled by the local euthanasia support group.

The ‘End of Life Care Policy and Project Officer’ for the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services, Bruce Wilson, confirmed this in a submission to the earlier discussion paper. 

“One way to manage the situation where only a minority of doctors wish to participate would be the formation, either official or unofficial, of a network of sympathetic doctors. In any case such a network would provide support and expertise, which will obviously be lacking for a long time in Tasmania given the expected take up rate.”

Paul Russell agrees, adding that, “in a small community like Tasmania, word will get around about who will and who won’t.  Moreover, there is nothing to stop the Dying with Dignity local chapter from keeping a register of friendly doctors or even recruiting like-minded doctors from the Australian mainland.”

The local campaign against the bill was given a huge boost last week by the release of a research paper that reviewed the original discussion paper, as well as the research and literature on euthanasia and assisted suicide from across the globe.

The media statement by authors Hannah Graham and Jeremy Pritchard summarized the criticisms:

“We felt that a response in the form of a research paper was necessary because Lara Giddings and Nick McKim’s paper, to our view, understates the complexity of international evidence and debate on the topic of euthanasia.  Our paper disagrees with a number of their claims and incorporates literature which was not included in their document.  We reference over 180 sources, mainly academic publications and government reports.”

But even this professional research won’t turn every vote as Paul Russell explains. “We’ve now seen Tasmania’s MPs furnished with the best in contemporary research, formal opposition from medical bodies, the churches and disability groups and sound analyses of the flaws in the bill, yet some MPs are still replying to constituents saying that they intend to support the bill if there are no major concerns.  What more do they need?”

Newspaper reports over the last week have consistently predicted that the bill will be defeated.  It is unclear whether the bill will be debated to a conclusion this week.

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