Both New Zealand and Australia have been considering legalizing assisted suicide, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea. While people with disabilities have already been speaking out against it, they are not alone in their opposition. A Queensland inquiry is being held to gauge support for euthanasia, and doctors warned that legalizing it could be disastrous for vulnerable populations.
Dr. Chrys Pulle, president of the Australian New Zealand Society of Geriatric Medicine Queensland, said that his society opposes the legalization of assisted suicide, arguing that it would send the message that suicide was the preferable option. This would end up, he said, “placing pressure on frail older people who may feel they’re a burden on others.”
He explained, “There [are] risks of voluntary and involuntary euthanasia on patients with cognitive impairment, dementia, delirium or reduced capacity, adverse effects on the funding for palliative care services and research; changing the concept of doctors being treaters and life savers and healers.” Pulle warned that a “tsunami” of elderly patients would soon be overwhelming the health care system, and it could lead to pushing these patients towards death.
“We need education for the wider public, as well as older people, about what expectations we’re likely to face once we’ve been diagnosed with a chronic neurodegenerative disease, or chronic pain condition,” he said. “No one wants to be that patient in the dementia ward that’s agitated. It’s not what their loved one wants. And oftentimes that reflects the wish to end somebody’s life.”
Dr Dilip Dhupelia also spoke against assisted suicide. As president of the Australian Medical Association Queensland (AMAQ), he said his association was likewise opposed. “What are the majority of Queenslanders really seeking in the push for physician-assisted dying?” he asked. “We contend that they actually want to be reassured that they will die in comfort and dignity alongside their loved ones and, most importantly, with a level of self-determination and autonomy, which they currently do not feel they have.” He explained that these goals could be accomplished with things like better palliative care and advanced care planning, and that if assisted suicide is legalized, doctors should be able to conscientiously object.
AMAQ ethics chair Dr. Chris Moy warned of the unintended consequences this would bring. “You’re opening up the issue of value of life, that’s not just from other people imposing their values of life onto individuals, which is a problem, but the second part is individuals starting to value their lives in a different way as well,” he said. “It may not just be elderly, these are disabled, these are children, you’re opening it up.”
The Queensland inquiry has already found that aged care homes are overusing drugs on dementia patients because it’s cheaper than providing them with proper care, and because it also keeps them sedated and quiet — even though it leads to an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. It’s another worrying sign of what will happen should assisted suicide be legalized. “As a society we should be judged on our support of a sick, vulnerable and frail elderly,” Dr. Pulle said.
Assisted suicide, in places where it is legal, does indeed end up putting the vulnerable at risk. People with Alzheimer’s and mental illnesses are frequently targeted for death. People who are elderly are especially vulnerable as they grow older and become ill, and begin worrying that they are a burden on their loved ones.
Indeed, multiple studies, including from reputable medical journals, have found that people do not choose assisted suicide because they are afraid of dying a painful death. Instead, they do so because they are depressed, hopeless, have a lack of support, and are scared they are a burden on the people they love. When these issues are addressed, the request to die is often withdrawn. These doctors warning of what will happen if assisted suicide is legalized have reason for concern; the most vulnerable people in Queensland will likely be the ones who pay the price.
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