The ACT Government needs to be careful it is not too clever by half in how it frames the discussion on its proposed assisted dying laws.
It seems to be accepted by one and all that Canberra will soon have its own rules, the seventh Australian jurisdiction to bring in its own euthanasia or assisted suicide laws. What a turn-up for the books it will be if, after waiting so long and expending so much elbow grease, Canberrans decide they don’t want to have the right to choose to die.
But some of the discussion points outlined this week look set to raise the temperature of the debate.
ACT Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne floated the idea of a major role for nurse practitioners. The Minister also wants to discuss whether people under the age of 18 should have access to access to voluntary assisted dying.
Both of these issues are important. But they are also passionate and controversial. Introducing these topics into this debate will kick off fiery discussions and may well backfire on the ACT Government.
Already talkback callers, social media and letter writers are raising concerns about the amount of power that will be given to nurse practitioners. Yes, we are very well-served by these professional operators, but making decisions on whether people can end their lives, or even help them end their lives, is a big step.
Tara Cheyne is right. The pool of health professionals in the ACT who would be equipped to assess a person’s condition is pretty shallow. The accepted wisdom around the rest of Australia is that two health professionals are needed to independently conclude that a patient is likely to die within a certain timeframe.
The ACT Government’s discussion paper tells us that in Canada, a nurse practitioner can be one of the health professionals making that life-ending assessment, so maybe we could adopt a similar approach.
Tara Cheyne is also right that our nurse practitioners are highly trained professionals. But one might ask, is helping someone die what they signed on for? One could only imagine how stressful being part of that process would be, even for the most experienced medical professionals who every day have to tell patients they have terminal illnesses.
The debate about age limits will also be feisty. The rest of the country agrees a person seeking to end their life must be at least 18 years old. But Tara Cheyne signalled part of our consultation process should consider if the age limit should be 16.
We don’t even trust 16-year-olds to be able to vote. Or drive a car. Or drink alcohol. Would it be strange if we gave them the power to end their lives?
Even without these two potentially contentious issues, the ACT laws are sure to be cutting-edge.
Most other states suggest a person looking to end their life would need to have a prognosis that they would die an uncomfortable death within six to 12 months.
The ACT is considering not including a requirement for a time frame for a person’s likely death.
Talking about death is never an easy task. The next eight weeks will be difficult for a lot of people, but it’s a conversation we have to have.