The state government can claim another success with the final passage of the euthanasia bill through parliament. But putting aside the politics and how this re-seizing of the progressive agenda could blunt the advance of the Greens in inner Melbourne after it’s Northcote win, it is worth pondering the magnitude of the landmark change.
Despite the lengthy and at times torturous debate which occupied Spring Street, it would also be fair to say questions remain. Perhaps by its very nature, this is only the beginning of the issue. After all death and illness will always be with us. There is no easy escape from our own mortality.
The state government has lauded this as a victory for compassion. Its consistent argument is about minimising harm and that multiple clauses in the legislation including levels of consent and exclusion will protect the vulnerable. High profile advocates for the dying with dignity, including local MP Jaala Pulford, have put their case powerfully with their own emotionally charged experiences. These stories have connected directly to many who have witnessed first hand the acute suffering of the terminally ill.
But other significant players including regional Professor Mark Yates have also voiced serious fears that this step could fundamentally change relationships between the doctor and the dying. He has argued articulately even in the most extreme conditions a patient must know that if a cure is not the aim of treatment then it is at least a restoration of some function or relief. The new option of this legislation adds death to those options and he argues undermines trust between doctor and patient.
Despite the threat of criminal prosecution of coercion in this legislation, there is also the fear the elderly or terminally ill may themselves choose suicide through feelings of burden. In an age when we recognise suicide as a preventable societal problem this is is still a strange paradox.
While the parliamentary debate is over, if the government is to assuage these ongoing concerns it will be necessary to ensure the law in practice, as much as in theory, is a guarantee against these excesses. It is also beholden to ensure that those subsidiary areas which circle closely to any issues of death; palliative care, mental health and even more generally, how a society ensures the aged and infirm feel valued, are given more attention and support than ever before. Only then could this law change be called a success.