HEALTH

Here Are The Arguments For And Against Euthanasia (And Where It Could Soon Be Legal)

And which states are closest to reforming assisted dying laws.

16/01/2017 2:11 PM AEDT | Updated 17/01/2017 8:09 AM AEDT

Euthanasia remains a contentious issue throughout the country, but political steps have been made to reform assisted dying laws.

Nothing is set in stone yet, but a cross-party working group in New South Wales is finalising draft legislation to put a voluntary assisted dying bill to Parliament this year -- which could be released for public consultation in February.

Political progress has also been made in Victoria, where Daniel Andrews' Labor government is set to introduce a bill to state Parliament in the second half of 2017. Victorian MPs will be given a conscience vote on the matter, after an inquiry into assisted dying was tabled to state parliament in June 2016.

So with the possibility of law reform around euthanasia -- also referred to as assisted dying -- let's take a look at the arguments for and against the reform.

The Huffington Post Australia spoke to Dr Linda Sheahan -- an Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney's Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine -- and Vice President of Dying With Dignity Victoria, Dr Rodney Syme to look at both sides.

What are the arguments FOR assisted dying?

Dying with dignity is one of the main arguments for assisted dying, which extends to dealing with more than just the physical pain, but psychological stress too.

"The simple fact is for many people dying is a very painful and distressing experience, causing a lot of suffering," Dr Syme told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Unfortunately the argument does tend to focus on physical pain, but physical pain is only one aspect of the suffering that people have."

Dr Syme said the psychological stress associated with a person's suffering is a huge factor. This includes losing control over their body or losing purpose in their life through the illness.

"A sense of being a burden to other people is huge for many of these people. They don't want to consume the lives of people they love and that tends to happen because they need a great deal of care."

Autonomy is the second factor which is essentially "people's ability and right to make their own decisions about those things which are of fundamental importance to them," Dr Syme said.

"How we die is one of the most important things that concerns us."

What are the arguments against assisted dying?

There are three main arguments against assisted dying in Australia which Dr Syme said "are based on fear, uncertainty and doubt".

People arguing against assisted dying claim the rights and reform could be abused -- by people close to someone mentally unfit to make a decision themselves, or if the drugs fall into the wrong hands. (We'll get to what possible reform would look like in Australia later.) Many also argue against assisted dying on religious grounds.

One of the main arguments against assisted dying is palliative care -- an industry many claim already helps Australians die with dignity.

Dr Linda Sheahan -- who is also a Consultant Staff Specialist Palliative Medicine, St George Hospital and Calvary Hospital -- said "palliative care affirms life and regards dying as a normal process."

"In the simplest of terms -- as I say to patients -- palliative care helps people live as well as they can until they die."

Dr Sheahan said about 70-80 percent of Palliative Care Specialists are opposed to the legalisation of physician-assisted death.

What is the difference between euthanasia and palliative care?

Assisted dying and palliative care are completely different practices. Palliative care does not include the practice of assisted dying.

"It uses a person centred, team based approach, to maximise quality of life for patients with life limiting illness and their families. It integrates physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of care," Dr Sheahan said.

"Regardless of one's views on legalised, physician-assisted death, good palliative care for the dying is absolutely required, and will be increasingly required over the coming decades, with or without euthanasia."

Assisted dying -- or euthanasia -- allows an individual to consume medicine allowing them to die quickly (often within minutes) when they choose.

"That's an alternative that some people would want," Dr Syme said. "I don't see any reason why people shouldn't be able to make that choice, provided great care is taken over it. And to take great care means you need medical practitioners to make sure that person does have severe suffering that can't be relieved in any reasonable way.

"We ought to provide every individual with a dignified death and what this means is it's what they consider to be dignified."

If legalised, who would be eligible for assisted dying?

The legislation in NSW is still being drafted, but in Victoria the legislation that will be put forward will only apply to Australians over the age of 18, who have a terminal illness, with the approval of two medical practitioners.

"The recommendation is the patient will be given the medication which they have to self-administer and -- only in the circumstance where they can't self-administer, will a doctor be able to give a lethal injection -- which is exceptionally rare and uncommon," Dr Syme said.

"People will simply not end their lives if there's any quality or purpose remaining for them. They can go on and on and sometimes people -- even if they've got the means to end their lives -- will continue in great distress because they simply do not want to die until they have no other alternative.

"Leaving the control in the hands of the individual is the greatest safeguard we can have."

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