A recent episode of Triple J’s Hack program brought to light an issue that isn’t often discussed when it comes to the debate about euthanasia: should sick young adults have the right to die?
39-year-old Jay Franklin recently shared his story on the program. Jay has suffered from intolerable chronic pain since birth. He was diagnosed with congenital bowel disease as a baby, and has had 100 operations since then in an attempt to correct the problem and alleviate his pain.
Most of Jay’s bowel has been removed and he relies on a bag to empty the remaining part’s contents, and an intravenous drip to deliver nutrition and morphine. Jay attended his first voluntary euthanasia meeting in his twenties.
He told Hack:
“People who are in my situation with intolerable pain and suffering, and who have been suffering 40 years and being told nothing else can be done surgically, just try and manage the pain as best they can, euthanasia should be available to us.”
Current Euthanasia Laws
Section 17 of the Crimes Act 1900 (‘the Act’) makes it an offence to aid another person to commit suicide. Subsection 17(2) says that a person is guilty if they:
- Incite or counsel another person to commit suicide; and
- The other person commits, or attempts to commit, suicide as a consequence of that incitement or counselling.
The offence carries a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.
Amendments to the Act could create an exception for physician assisted suicides, allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients without facing a criminal conviction for aiding suicide, or for murder in Australia.
A draft bill was introduced into parliament last year in an attempt to create this exception. To safeguard against misuse, the proposal required two doctors and a psychiatrist to sign off on the prescription of lethal drugs before a physician could escape liability, and would only be available to those suffering from a terminal illness. The bill has not been passed in any Australian state or territory.
If the law did pass, it would not help people like Jay because his illness is not classed as terminal.
Germany recently passed an ‘assisted dying’ law which allows assisted suicides that are conducted with ‘altruistic motives’. The law explicitly prohibits assisted deaths that are carried out on a ‘business’ basis; in other words, as a way of making profit.
Even before the German law was passed, doctors were allowed to accelerate the deaths of terminally ill patients by administering large amounts of painkillers, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatments, if that’s what the patient wanted. It had, however, been illegal to assist a patient to kill themselves. The new law is controversial, with some groups saying that it creates a murky area of law.
The US state of California also recently legalised assisted suicide. The End Of Life Option Act (SB-128) makes it legal for certain adults who are suffering from a ‘terminal disease’ to request lethal drugs. ‘Terminal disease’ is defined as one which, according to confirmed medical opinions, will result in death within six months.
These jurisdictions join the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland in legalising voluntary euthanasia. None of the laws, however, relate to those who are in chronic pain but are not dying.
The intersection between morality, healthcare and law makes euthanasia a difficult area for patients, doctors and lawmakers. It is a controversial social, medical and legal issue which comes with a range of ethical and practical consideration whichever side of the debate you are on.