Ethics taken out of euthanasia debate

AFTER promising it for 2 1/2 years, Lara Giddings and Nick McKim (acting as individual MPs, not government or party leaders) have finally handed down a discussion paper outlining their proposed model for voluntary euthanasia.

But not everything is up for a discussion.

They want feedback on the model, not a general debate on the issue.

The reason, according to Mr McKim, is because that part of the discussion is over. Opinion polls show 80 per cent of the community want law reform in this area.

For Ms Giddings, it's a question of timing. Now's the time to get the best possible system of safeguards right, the wider debate and lobbying can wait until the legislation is considered by Parliament later this year.

The 108-page document released at the weekend turns what is a deeply emotional issue into a purely technical, legal framework.

It contains detailed comparisons with systems used in overseas jurisdictions including Oregon, Washington State, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland and analyses recent reviews of the issue in Canada and the UK.

Consultation questions encourage respondents to stick to their views on how it should work here.

Rather than the fundamental dilemma of `do citizens have the right to die?' the question becomes `should voluntary assisted dying be limited to the patient self- administering the fatal dose?'

Even the working title for the proposed legislation Dying with Dignity, the name of the bill Mr McKim first introduced in 2009, has been ditched and replaced with the more clinical term voluntary assisted dying.

But try as they might to contain the discussion, at least at this point, they can expect a flood of passionate arguments for and against voluntary euthanasia.

For those who have seen loved ones suffer and die in terrible circumstances, it is understandably a deeply emotional thing.

On the other hand, opponents, often driven by strongly held religious beliefs, are appalled.

As Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace put it: "It's about the sanctity of life."

It's a massive ask to expect people to put aside those traumatic experiences or fundamental beliefs to focus on the cold, hard practicalities of exactly how a terminally ill patient would go about ending their own life.

So, why are Mr McKim and Ms Giddings so keen to put the brakes on an all-out debate about voluntary euthanasia?

For advocates, having a robust system of safeguards to point to is the best defence against fears that the system will be abused.

The slippery slope argument contains some frightening prospects where the choice to die becomes a duty to die or death will be viewed as a quick fix making suicide more common.

Turning the public's mind to the practical step-by-step process will be the best way to stop those fears taking hold.

As Dying with Dignity Tasmania president Margaret Sing said: "Those views need to be heard but feelings and convictions alone are not a good basis for important decisions on law reform.

"Nor can good decisions be made on the basis of ill-informed speculation and unfounded fears."

By attempting to recast the current debate as a legal and practical rather than ethical matter to deal with, Mr McKim and Ms Giddings hope to balance out the strong emotions and fears provoked by any discussion about a patient facing a terrible end to their life.

It makes sense but the details are no match for those powerful and passionate beliefs that will inevitably dominate what is set to be an intense and difficult debate.


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