WE’RE living longer than previous generations, kept alive by the miracles of modern medicine, but it’s not all beer and skittles. In the 21st century, most of us will live long enough to develop dementia, heart disease, cancer or a respiratory illness. Many of us will spend our last few years in chronic pain and depression.
While it’s not illegal to take your own life, it is very difficult if you are old or frail or have a serious illness. Most of us are doomed to see it out until the end, unless our doctor decides to call time.
But change is in the air, thanks to huge numbers of baby boomers approaching their final decades. Used to getting their own way in life, they can’t see why they shouldn’t also choose the manner of their death. Victorian MPs will vote later this year on a bill to legalise assisted dying for those with a terminal disease.
Of course, intense lobbying of MPs has already begun. Kay Setches, a former Victorian MP and minister and now a Phillip Island resident, sees the Phillip Island Literary Festival as the ideal vehicle to stimulate community debate on the many issues around assisted dying.
On the opening night of the festival, next Friday night, film-maker and author Andrew Denton will speak on The Damage Done, his book based on the stories of 72 terminally ill people. On Saturday morning, Dr Rodney Syme, who has admitted supplying the drug Nembutal to many people with advanced incurable diseases, will speak on his recent book Time to Die. In particular, he wants to widen the criteria of eligibility for assistance to include those with chronic but not necessarily terminal diseases such as motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis.
The discussions are timely. Last week the Tasmanian Parliament voted 16 to eight against a bill to allow assisted dying. Late last year similar legislation was rejected by the South Australian Parliament for the 15th time, but this time it was only on the casting vote of the Speaker.
The next two up are Victoria and New South Wales, which are both introducing legislation this year. As in the other parliaments, Victorian MPs will have a conscience vote, one of the few times they get to act on their own beliefs.
A Victorian Parliamentary inquiry into end of life choices last year recommended that the Government should legalise assisted dying for patients with enduring and unbearable physical suffering. Those patients would have their requests (verbal and written) considered by two independent doctors who could prescribe the life-ending medication, which the person could then take at a time and place of their own choosing.
There were strict provisos: the person must be over 18, must be capable of making an informed decision and must be in the final weeks or months of life.
Crucially this excluded those with a chronic neurological illness such as motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis, no matter how unbearable the suffering, if there is no end in sight, and those suffering from a mental illness. Nor was there provision for people in the early stages of dementia to make a request for voluntary assisted dying in advance care plans and access it at a time when they had lost decision-making capacity.
Last week, a panel of medical and other experts presented their report into some of the issues, particularly around eligibility (Interim report of the Ministerial Advisory Panel). They will present their final report with recommendations on legislation in the next three months.
Andrew Denton: “The Damage Done”, Cowes Cultural Centre, Friday, June 9, 7.30pm. Dr Rodney Syme: “Time to Die”, Cowes Cultural Centre, Saturday, June 10, 11am. Tickets Turn the Page bookshop, Cowes, or https://www.theislandstorygatherers.com/buy-tickets.