The choice of a dignified death

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By Steph Hodgins-May

 

The Greens are called a socially progressive party because the policies that we advocate for progress our society and seek to improve both the lives of people and the environment.

One piece of progressive legislation that I’m particularly proud to be working on is the Dying with Dignity Bill.

Leader of the Australian Greens, Dr Richard Di Natale, introduced this legislation into the Senate earlier this year and I have worked with him to gain support for a conscience vote.  It is appropriate that politicians have a conscience vote because they have a profound influence over the lives of people who are sick, who are suffering and who are dying.

There is widespread support for allowing the terminally ill the right to die with dignity in strictly controlled circumstances and with medical supervision.

In Europe and Oregon, legislation allowing voluntary assisted death has been successfully introduced for many years and more countries are looking at similar proposals.

Dying with dignity, or physician assisted dying, is a very emotional issue for most of us.  Particularly those, like myself who have had the experience of seeing someone they love die badly. Discussing how we end our lives is confronting, but it is important that we bring this issue out in the open and have the parliament debate it.

We already know that physician assisted dying is happening in Australia.  Doctors are doing it out of compassion because palliative care does not work for all people with terminal conditions. What is less clear is how often it is happening, under what circumstances and with what controls.

That is why we need to have legislation in place with proper safeguards and accountability.

The suffering of some patients with terminal illness is truly distressing.  In a very small number of cases, keeping people with untreatable pain alive for weeks or months against their wishes seems to me a cruel way to end one’s life.

Having been part of the Senate hearings into this proposal and spending time with those who are dying and their families, I fundamentally believe that if someone is suffering intolerably and no amount of medical help will provide relief, they should have the choice of a dignified death at home with family and friends.

The example of other countries with similar legislation has shown that most people with terminal conditions do not actually use it.  For them and their families, it is more about knowing that should they reach that stage where the pain and suffering is intolerable, they can talk with their doctors about this option.

There is simply no evidence of a ‘slippery slope’ or people who feel lonely, devalued or a burden being assisted to end their life.

Andrew Denton has recently made two very important contributions to this debate: “One: dying is complicated. And two: people cling to life more fiercely than you could ever imagine.”

The question Mr Denton and supporters of the Greens Bill ask is this: Why should an adult, acting with competence and unimpaired judgement and who is dying of a terminal condition, have to die slowly and not be assisted to have a dignified passing at a time and place of their choosing?

Religious and other beliefs mean that many people will not seek physician assisted dying and I support their personal decision. But I also support the right of people of competent mind who face an agonising and protracted death from untreatable and terminal conditions to have the right to choose to end their life in a dignified way.

The voices in support of choice at end of life are growing and our federal parliamentarians have a duty to listen and to demonstrate courage and leadership by delivering dying with dignity reform.

 

Steph Hodgins-May is the Federal Greens candidate for Melbourne Ports

 

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