Assisted dying laws: former AMA head says 'life is not defined by a heartbeat'
Dr Brian Owler, the former president of the Australian Medical Association, has urged Victorian politicians not to waste an opportunity to pass voluntary assisted dying laws, saying “life is not defined by a heartbeat”.
“Life is more,” the neurosurgeon told the National Press Club in Canberra on Thursday. “It is the experience of this world, of those around us, it’s the love and comfort of our families.
“Some might say that suffering is part of life, and I agree it is. But respecting life does not mean that suffering is something that must be endured by an individual, particularly against their wishes.”
His speech comes as the Victorian parliament prepares to debate assisted dying legislation on Tuesday afternoon. The legislation has been two years in the making and was informed by an extensive parliamentary inquiry that included considering 1,074 submissions and evidence from 154 witnesses. Following this inquiry the Victorian government established a ministerial advisory panel tasked with examining all of the available evidence on voluntary assisted dying from around the world. Owler was appointed chair of that taskforce, and the taskforce findings were used to inform the legislation now being considered by parliament.
Owler told the National Press Club that the resulting legislation was evidence-based, tailored to Victoria, and included 68 safeguards to protect against the laws being abused. He added that in states like Oregon in the US, which has had voluntary assisted dying legislation for 20 years, the laws had not been weakened or expanded in all that time, which should dispel claims that passing legislation was a “slippery slope” to more watered-down laws.
“The practice of voluntary assisted dying, which is also primarily about the relief of suffering, when practiced within an established legal framework, is wholly consistent with good medical practice and upholds the fundamental objectives of being a doctor,” Owler said.
He added that he strongly supported palliative care, which in the majority of cases was adequate to relieve pain and suffering. But he added there were a minority of cases where pain and suffering could not be relieved.
“Many of those most determined to see this law pass have personal anecdotes of loved ones whose death has been terrible,” he said. “People in such examples often died of cancerrelated illnesses. They experienced excruciating bone pain or neuropathic pain resistant to medication.”
Other conditions included chronic organ failure such as end-stage respiratory failure or heart failure, where people experienced a death akin to slow suffocation or drowning, he said.
He described the pain of watching his own father die a terrible death, and of being powerless to ease his suffering despite his medical credentials. His father starved to death, “literally rotting in his bed as the ulcer on his sacrum grew”, Owler said.
“I watched, president of AMA NSW and a consultant neurosurgeon, hopelessly unable to help him,” he said. “Resources and access were not an issue. I remember my despair as I politely asked one of his doctors for help to ease his suffering. He died a terrible death.”
In closing, Owler said that he wanted to address Victorian politicians and send them a message.
“I know that all of you went into parliament to make a difference,” he
told them. “As a doctor I understand this desire. It’s what motivates doctors as well. For some of you, this may be one of the hardest decisions you make in your political career.
“But to be able to make a decision, the result of which is to ease the suffering of a person who is dying, and those who love that person, to provide them with the comfort of a choice, not just for one day but for days into the future, that is a unique opportunity for our parliamentarians to exercise.
“This is an opportunity not to be wasted.”
Brian Owler: ‘Respecting life does not mean that suffering is something that must be endured by an individual, particularly against their wishes.’