GPs reluctant to euthanise patients

MORE than 200 Australian doctors have banded together to call for law reform on voluntary euthanasia, but few of them would want to administer a fatal drug dose, the organisation's spokesman says.

Robert Marr, a GP in Sydney, said he was unable to think of any member of Doctors for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice who would want to be responsible for the death of a patient wanting to die.

He said critics of euthanasia focused on this reluctance and raised the issue of the possible traumatic outcomes for doctors.

''But doctors wouldn't be administering the drug, because that responsibility could instead lie with the patient who would self-administer the dose, which is what happens in countries where it is legalised,'' Dr Marr said.

''This is not about the suffering of doctors, it's about the suffering of the patients and that's what the doctors signed up to our organisation recognise.''

The group, established last year, describes itself as a ''national organisation of Australian medical practitioners … committed to having a legal choice of providing information and assistance to rational adults who, for reasons of no realistic chance of cure or relief from intolerable symptoms, would like to gently end their lives''.

Dr Marr criticised those arguing for palliative care only, because he said many chronic and terminally ill people, while not in physical pain, were incapacitated, including those with motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis.

He said those patients would have to take a lethal dose prescribed by their doctor before they became fully paralysed.

''For that reason I think self-administration would be a bit conservative, but that gets around the emotive argument of doctors or family members as killers,'' Dr Marr said.

He said doctors were helping terminally ill patients die in hospitals ''all the time'' by increasing morphine doses.

''It needs to be brought into the open by legalising it, but hysterical opposition means doctors are now paranoid about increasing morphine doses to speed death as they may be accused of being involved in euthanasia.

''In the medical world there are certain vigilante religious fundamentalist nurses and doctors looking out for efforts by any doctors viewed as helping terminally [ill] patients to die.''

It is legal to increase morphine with the intention of relieving suffering, which may have a side effect of hastening death, but not to do so with death as the goal.

''This issue needs to be resolved in some way and not left up to bullying of religious fundamentalists,'' Dr Marr said.

''It should be up to the patient - not up to doctors or priests - to decide.''

But the director of the Plunkett Centre for Ethics, a joint unit of the Australian Catholic University and St Vincents & Mater Health Sydney, Bernadette Tobin, said the proposal to have patients administer their own lethal medications was a way to get around the fact that, if a doctor were to be involved, he or she must acquiesce in the patient's judgment that death would be a benefit.

''If a doctor can make the judgment that death would be a benefit for a patient who asks for euthanasia there is nothing to stop him making that judgment in the case of a patient who has not asked for euthanasia,'' Dr Tobin said.

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