Should people with acute mental suffering be allowed to die?

Sascha Callaghan, University of Sydney

Euthanasia advocates often assert a distinction between dying with dignity (good) and suicide (bad), drawing on the community’s twin commitment to both permitting euthanasia in some circumstances, and preventing suicide. But rather than being distinct, euthanasia and suicide are points on a continuum of death decisions, that overlap uncomfortably where intractable mental suffering is asserted as grounds for assisted dying.

The tension between the two was played out this week in the Northern Territory, where the local Civil and Administrative Tribunal is considering whether to uphold the Medical Board of Australia’s suspension of Philip Nitschke’s medical licence after a three-day hearing.

The suspension came after Nitschke discussed assisted suicide with 45-year-old Perth man Nigel Brayley even though he knew Brayley did not have a terminal illness. Brayley reportedly told Nitschke in an email that he was “suffering” in the sense that he was deeply unhappy in his life. Nitschke did not refer to him to a psychiatrist or offer any other help.

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How to draw the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reasons to die

Sascha Callaghan, University of Sydney

A Senate inquiry into legalising voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill people has recommended a conscience vote on the proposed bill after technical matters, such as what constitutes a “terminal illness”, are clarified.

While this is an important step forward in grappling with the idea of the “right to die”, drawing a line at terminal illness for this purpose will be difficult. What’s more, restricting the right to die to people who are terminally ill is very different to what most of us think of as justifiable euthanasia.

Research shows more than 82% of Australians support voluntary euthanasia where “a hopelessly ill patient, experiencing unrelievable suffering, with absolutely no chance of recovering” asks for help to end their life. This description covers terminal illnesses as well as other incurable conditions causing great suffering in which death may not be imminent.

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