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September 25, 2016

Why the Belgians have it right

It will be twenty years ago this week since the Northern Territory passed the world’s first law on voluntary euthanasia.

The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) was a carefully-drafted piece of legislation that allowed a terminally ill person of sound mind to ask a doctor for help to die. The law expressly excluded children.

While the ROTI law only lasted nine months until it was overturned by a conscience vote in Federal Parliament, its legacy lives on in today’s debate about right to die legislation.

The flurry of enthusiasm in recent days by Victorian politicians means that a voluntary euthanasia law in this state is a sure thing. It is only a matter of time.

With this in mind, and given the news from Belgium of the euthanasia death of a terminally-ill 17-year-old – ie a minor/ child, it seems a good time to be asking ourselves what type of law we want Spring St to pass.

In proposing the NT law back in 1995, then Chief Minister Marshall Perron said that he did not want a law with safeguards so strict that the process of qualifying was a tortuous one.

Sadly, Perron’s fears were realised. At least according to Dr Philip Nitschke. Philip speaks often of the hoops that his four dying patients had to jump through in the process of qualifying to use the law. He says the ordeal almost killed them.

Do we want the same for Victoria?

Do we want to force dying people to spend their final days, using the little strength they have left dealing with red tape?

Where does the balance lie? Can we do better?

It was not only safeguard overload that marked the NT’s attempt at a law, the ROTI Act also excluded young people. Back then, the plight of teenagers was firmly in the ‘too hard’ basket.

This is despite the fact that young people get terminal diseases like cancer, and despite the fact that palliative care can often only go so far in relieving the awful symptoms that serious illness can bring.

It is not only Woody Allen who fears the way he will die, rather than death itself, the academic literature says the same thing.

The news of the recent euthanasia of the teenager in Belgium has re-ignited the right to die debate globally.

The Belgium Federal Euthanasia Commission has been reported saying that the terminally ill young person asked for euthanasia because they were in ‘unbearable physical pain’.

What is there to argue about.

Do we – as a society – insist the young person must suffer on, simply because they are under 18 years of age?

Or do we do the right thing and allow them some relief in their final weeks, days or hours?

When confronted with the facts of the situation in Belgium, I would argue this is a no brainer.

We wouldn’t torture our pets. We should not torture our terminally ill children.

When it comes to kids and euthanasia, the largesse of Belgium and Holland’s laws should not be underestimated.

These countries have not shied away from this pointy end of the right to die debate. Their humanity should be celebrated. And let’s not stop here.

What about the psychiatrically ill? This was another group excluded by the NT law.

Yet these people too can request euthanasia in Belgium and Holland.

Indeed, at the euthanasia conference that I am convening this week at the State Library, controversial Belgium psychiatrist Dr Lieve Thienpont is one of the keynote speakers.

Dr Thienpont’s work in Flanders in Belgium is almost exclusively in the area of euthanasia for the psychiatrically ill.

In Melbourne she will be talking about euthanasia for children, non-terminally ill older people (those who say they have had a good innings but now is the time to go) and the mentally ill.

While so-called pro-lifers will no doubt picket her appearance, I have found Lieve  to be a calm and gentle woman who has been prepared to stick her neck out on behalf of the most vulnerable in our community.

Those who other euthanasia laws turn their back on.

In this regard, Dr Thienpont has battled it out amidst the sensationalist headlines.

Even if you do not agree with euthanasia, the insights which someone of her standing and vast experience deserve a fair hearing before we allow debate to turn to arguments of slippery slopes and eugenics.

For the likes of Dr Thienpont, suffering is suffering regardless of age and irrespective of whether one has an un-treatable physical or mental illness.

If treatment, let alone cure, is not an option then why should we insist such people live on?

These are the difficult, but not iresolvable, questions that the Victorian Parliament is going to have to face if they are to bring in euthanasia legislation.

There are plenty of nay-sayers who will tell them it’s all too hard and to leave well alone.   But the Belgium experience suggests that euthanasia legislation can be broad and it can work well if preventing needless suffering is its aim.

Fiona Stewart, PhD LLB

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