November 8, 2015
Andrew Denton Falls for Doctors’ Spin in Euthanasia Debate
Fiona Stewart, Sydney Morning Herald
For at least the past two decades, Melbourne urologist Dr Rodney Syme has been advocating medically-controlled voluntary euthanasia, or assisted suicide as it is now called.
An alumni of the Melbourne establishment, Syme has insisted that a “good doctor” should distribute Nembutal to patients who he considers worthy. The decision would be the doctor’s alone.
In recent weeks, Syme has found a powerful ideological ally, in the shape of his former Toorak neighbour, Andrew Denton. With a long-time interest in the issue, Denton has joined the fray big time, giving this year’s Di Gribble Argument at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre.
It is to Denton’s credit that he has single-handedly got the ABC’s Q&A to engage with voluntary euthanasia after seven years of denial.
While Denton’s interest in assisted suicide is to be welcomed, it is important – especially given the silencing of Australia’s foremost euthanasia doctor and thinker, my husband Philip Nitschke – that he has something worthwhile to say.
While Denton is right to identify the medical professional as a key stumbling block to euthanasia law reform, it seems self-defeating that his critique of medicine’s appropriation of the dying process stops before it starts.
The debate goes nowhere when Denton falls for the spin of the medical profession. That it is doctors – and doctors only – who are the experts on death and dying. That you can’t die well unless you have the white coat at the bedside telling you what to do. Well, no, I disagree. And so do many Australians.
Take the members of Exit International, as an example. The average age is 75 years and they are fed up with the recalcitrance of both their MPs and the medical profession.
Exit International members sort it themselves. They break the law for the first time in their lives to get the best drugs. Following this, they test them for purity and then they store them away in the hope they never need them. It’s their insurance policy for the future, just in case.
In this way, increasing numbers of Australia’s elderly are creating their own options for dying with dignity. This makes the obstructionism of the Australian medical profession largely irrelevant. The caravan has moved on. And this is the point.
This is the most important way that Australia has contributed to global debate on death and dying.
The national contribution of the Dutch would be a person’s ability to make an advance directive where they can instruct doctors to “put them down” when they can no longer do it themselves, due, for example, to dementia.
For Belgium, it is the inclusion of psychiatric suffering and social reasons, such as being unhappily transgender or life imprisonment, as legitimate reasons for deciding to leave, as opposed to just physical illness.
And then there is Switzerland, where rational suicide is lawful, and altruistic assisted suicide is theoretically (and lawfully) open to everyone.
Since I left Australia last January I have spent a good deal of time in Switzerland.
You don’t have to be here long to hear the tale about old Mrs So and So in the village who chose her time carefully. The story goes she hosted quiet farewell drinks the night before leaving the nursing home for her final journey to the rooms of Exit Schweiz (Exit Switzerland).
On Monday’s Q&A, the panel line-up makes it unlikely that cutting-edge issues such as non-medicalised, rational suicide will get a look in.
Instead, we will be subjected to the medical profession justifying its authority. Syme will maintain that as a doctor, he is best able to select who should get help. The palliative care expert will protect his turf, and talk about the slippery slope if ever laws were to relax.
Meanwhile, Philip Nitschke will maintain his Medical Board-enforced silence, an example of the medical profession’s need to censor and control information on the issue.
Let’s hope Denton sees the snake oil of the doctors for what it is.
Australians know what they want in dying. They don’t need a doctor adjudicating if they are sick enough or sane enough or grovelling enough to qualify.
The country that invented voluntary euthanasia laws must do better.
Dr Fiona Stewart is the new Executive Director of Exit International (& Coauthor of the Peaceful Pill eHandbook)