Enabling the angels of death?

Draft voluntary euthanasia legislation, called the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 (NSW) has been released for public comment.

Drafted by a cross-Parliamentary working group, it may be the closest contender yet for the legalisation of assistance-in-dying for people living in NSW who are suffering from a terminal disease.

A short summary of the Bill appears further below.

Australians have not had lawful access to assisted dying since 1997, when the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 (Cth) [introduced as a private member’s Bill by Kevin Andrews MP, with the assistance of the Howard government] overturned the Northern Territory’s brief, 8 month experiment with euthanasia – the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995.

Relying on the plenary legislative power of the Commonwealth to make laws for the Territories, the Euthanasia Laws Act withdrew from the NT and ACT the power to make laws with respect to assisted dying.  The Act was a victory for conservative political forces in Australia.

Since that time, despite polls suggesting that most Australians favour legalising a right for those suffering a terminal illness to die with medical assistance, all the voluntary euthanasia Bills introduced into State Parliaments have failed.

There are various explanations for this.

The legalisation of assisted dying may suffer from the reality that although a majority of the population support it, those who oppose it are deeply committed opponents for whom the issue is a vote-changer.  This makes the passage of laws that might have majority support a net vote loser.

Another explanation is that Australians, or at least their elected representatives, are far less progressive than right-to-die advocates would like to believe.

Will the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 give legal cover to those “angels of death” who up to now have provided their assistance informally, in the “euthanasia underground”?

The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 (NSW)

The Bill would authorise a 25 year-old, ordinarily present in NSW, to request their primary medical practitioner for assistance to end their life in circumstances where that person (the patient) has been informed by their primary medical practitioner that the patient is suffering from a terminal illness, and where the patient is experiencing severe pain, suffering or physical incapacity that is unacceptable to the patient (cl 4).

The request for assistance must be in writing (see below), and the patient may rescind their request at any time (cl 5).

Assistance may take the form of prescribing and preparing a (lethal) substance for self-administration by the patient, or may involve the direct administration of the substance to the patient when the patient is physically incapable of self-administering it (cl 3).

A medical practitioner may only provide assistance with substances identified in the Regulations as “authorised substances”, presumably because of their reliable euthanatic properties (cl 10).

The patient’s primary medical practitioner is not obliged to provide assistance (cl 6), and the patient may, in writing or by means of an audio-visual record, nominate a third party, who must be at least 18 years old, to provide the assistance (cl 7).

A number of requirements must be met before the assistance can be provided.

The patient must be examined by their primary medical practitioner, and by an independent, secondary medical practitioner who must be registered “in a specialty of the medical profession that is relevant to the patient’s diagnosis or treatment of the terminal illness from which the patient is suffering” (cl 14(3)(a)).  The specialist must not be “closely associated” with the primary medical practitioner, ie the former must not be a close relative, employee, or member of the same medical practice as the latter (cl 14(3)(b)).  In addition, the specialist must not be a close relative of the patient (cl 14(3)(c)).

Conflict of interest provisions also apply. A person (that is, any person) must not promise any financial benefit to the primary medical practitioner, and the primary medical practitioner must not accept any financial benefit in return for providing assistance to the patient, other than reasonable payment for medical services (cl 12).

It seems difficult for the primary medical practitioner to be a close relative of the patient, or the former would fail the conflict of interest provisions by virtue of receiving a financial benefit through inheritance (cl 11(a)).

The patient’s request for assistance must be confirmed by the patient after the primary medical practitioner has examined the patient and indicated the likely course of the patient’s illness, and treatment options, including palliative care, counselling and psychiatric support (cl 15).

Next, the patient must be examined by an independent psychiatrist or psychologist who must provide a written report to the primary medical practitioner and specialist which confirms that the patient is of sound mind and has made a free and voluntary decision (cl 16).

The primary medical practitioner must not provide assistance unless they have examined the patient and formed the medical opinion that the patient is suffering from a “terminal illness” (ie an illness that in reasonable medical judgment will cause death within 12 months) that is causing “severe pain, suffering or physical incapacity to an extent unacceptable to the patient” (cl 17).  The primary medical practitioner must also believe that there is no cure, and that the only treatment reasonably available to the patient is the relief of pain and suffering (ie palliative care).  The primary medical practitioner must also believe that the patient has considered the impact of the assisted death on the patient’s spouse or de-facto partner or family.  The specialist must also confirm these assessments in a written statement provided to the primary medical practitioner (cl 17).

A patient who requests assistance in dying must also fill out a request certificate.  The Bill envisages an initial request made by the patient, followed by a period of not less than 7 days, before the patient signs the request certificate (c. 18).

If the patient is physically unable to sign the certificate, the certificate may take the form of an audio-visual record of the patient reading the patient’s declaration in the certificate; however, the primary medical practitioner must be present during the signing and must also sign a declaration on the request certificate.  The specialist must also sign the certificate (cl 18).

A cooling off period applies after the patient requests assistance: this disentitles the primary medical practitioner from providing assistance for at least 48 hours after the request certificate was completed (cl 8).

The Bill also requires an interpreter to become involved if the patient is unable to communicate fluently, in any language, with the two medical practitioners and the psychiatrist or psychologist (cl 19).

The Bill provides a mechanism for close relatives to apply to the Supreme Court and for the Court to invalidate the request certificate if statutory requirements are not met.  Grounds for invalidating the certificate include a finding that the patient was not suffering from a terminal illness, or was not of sound mind at the time they made the initial request for assistance and signed the request certificate.  The Court may also inquire into whether or not the patient’s decision was made freely and voluntarily after due consideration, and whether or not the patient’s capacity was adversely affected by his or her state of mind (cl 21).

The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction, which includes its parens patriae jurisdiction, is not affected by the Bill (cl 23).

The Bill gives health care providers and any other person a right not to participate in providing the patient with assistance to end their life (cl 24).  Unlike Victoria’s abortion legislation, a medical practitioner or other person with a conscientious objection to assisted dying is not obliged to refer a patient to a medical practitioner whom they know has no such scruples, although they are required to transfer a copy of the patient’s medical records to a new medical practitioner (cl 24).

A “protected person” is not criminally or civilly liable (this includes liability in any disciplinary proceedings) for actions taken in good faith to participate in the provision of assistance to die in accordance with the Act.  This includes administering a lethal substance, selling or preparing such a substance, and being present when the assistance is given (cl 25).  A protected person means the primary medical practitioner or specialist, the psychiatrist or independent psychologist, a health care provider or nominee (cl 25).

The Bill could further confirm this protection by extending it to the person who fills a prescription or prepares or compounds the substance that is intended to be used to assist the patient to die.  The person who provides the substance may have no way of knowing whether the requirements of the Act have, in fact, been fulfilled.  The Bill is not clear about where the drugs used in the assisted dying procedure will be sourced.

Clause 25 does not refer specifically to administration or preparation of an “authorised” substance, although elsewhere the Bill requires only authorised substances to be used (cl 10).  Immunity does not extend to dealings with “unused substance” except for the purposes of destruction (cl 25(5)).

A well-worn debate?

Twenty years ago, moral opposition to the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation was spear-headed by the Catholic and Anglican churches, whose record on human rights has since been subjected to scrutiny by the  Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Despite this, the Bill is unlikely to escape the usual criticisms that are made of assisted dying legislation.  These include the criticism that vulnerable patients will simply engage in doctor shopping until they find medical practitioners willing to give them what they want.

Opponents argue that it would be better to improve the funding and technical capability of palliative care services, rather than authorising cheap alternatives to such care.

Advocates for assisted dying point out that if palliative care could successfully reduce suffering to levels acceptable to patients, without sedating them into permanent unconsciousness, there would be no continuing drive for euthanasia.

Opponents argue that legislation to deliver a right to die with assistance, while simultaneously protecting vulnerable people from potential abuse, is difficult if not impossible to achieve.

Opponents also worry about the slippery slope, an idea summarised by Robert Manne at the height of debate about the Northern Territory’s legislation:

For anyone who understands social processes the expansion of the circle of those who can be killed will come as no surprise. For once we agree to the principle of doctors performing voluntary euthanasia by what effort of societal will, on what rock of ethical principle, can we resist its extension to ever new categories of sufferers?  There is no such will: no such fixed and reliable principle…The slippery slope…involves a subtle transformation of ethical sensibility.  Over time we become blind to how we once thought [Robert Manne, “Life and death on the slippery slope” Quadrant, Vol 39, issue 7-8, July/Aug 1995, pp 2-3].

The debate goes round and round.

 

The fate of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill remains hard to predict.  Ultimately, however, the decision will lie with legislators – human beings voting on the basis of their conscience and sense of what is right and decent.  It is not a poll.

 

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Graduate Diploma in Health Law, and Master of Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.

Professor Cameron Stewart teaches “Death Law” within the Master of Health Law program.

Professor Roger Magnusson wrote Angels of Death: Exploring the Euthanasia Underground, published by Melbourne University Press in 2002.

Dr Rodney Syme and Nembutal

rodneysyme_11a_good_death1

A Good Death

In the mid-1970s, a Melbourne urologist, Rodney Syme, sat facing Len, a man whose invasive bladder cancer was causing incontinence and blood clots that blocked the flow of urine.

Len needed to urinate every fifteen minutes, and frequently wet himself.  He was in excruciating pain.  It is cases like this, Syme would later write, in his book, A Good Death, that have caused generations of surgeons to whisper “Please God, do not take me through my bladder” (Syme 2008, 36).

Pale as chalk, “Len looked me straight in the eye”, Syme recalls, and asked “Isn’t there anything else you can do for me?”

Unwilling to treat Len as a “medical pawn”, Syme responded that he could write a prescription for sleeping tablets that Len could self-administer.

Syme writes: “I will never forget the look of intense relief and simultaneous gratitude that suddenly illuminated Len’s pallid face as his wish was granted” (Syme 2008, 38).

Len’s demise was hardly a textbook case of physician-assisted dying, but it was a turning point for Syme.

“I realized at this point that I had commenced on a ‘life of crime’, and that if future patients like Len were to come to me for help, I would have no option, in all conscience, but to continue in this ‘life of crime’” (Syme 2008, 41).

Len died in the mid-1970s.  But ever since then, Rodney Syme has been quietly, and more recently, not-so-quietly, pushing into the grey zone that separates lawful, palliative care from (unlawful) assisted dying.

In March 1997, when the Commonwealth Parliament used its constitutional powers to make laws for the territories to overturn the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT), Rodney Syme vowed publicly to continue providing quiet assistance to patients when needed.

 

Syme v Medical Board of Australia (2016)

In January 2016, the Medical Board of Australia received a mandatory notification under Victoria’s version of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law.

The notifier was the GP of a man called Bernard Erica.  Mr Erica had tongue cancer and secondary metastases in his lungs, and was at that time receiving palliative care.  His death was expected within one month.

Mr Erica’s GP advised the Medical Board of Australia that Mr Erica had told him that Dr Syme was going to assist Erica to end his life.

What Dr Syme had done with Mr Erica, as with some of his other patients, was to assure Mr Erica that he would give him a drug called Nembutal (pentobartal), that he could use if he chose to.

Medical practitioners are required to notify reasonable suspicions of “notifiable conduct” committed by other registered health practitioners.

The concept of “notifiable conduct” includes placing the public at risk of harm because the practitioner has “practised the profession in a way that constitutes a significant departure from accepted professional standards” (ss 140-144).

Under delegation arrangements, the powers of the Medical Board of Australia to take immediate action in relation to the subject of a complaint are exercised by the Immediate Action Committee (IAC), which is empowered to act immediately if it believes that “the practitioner poses a serious risk to persons” (s 156).

In this case, the IAC investigated the allegations and imposed the following condition on Dr Syme’s right to practice:

“Dr Rodney Syme [MED0000944514] is not to engage in the provision of any form of medical care, or any professional conduct in his capacity as a medical practitioner that has the primary purpose of ending a person’s life”.

Dr Syme appealed.  In Syme v Medical Board of Australia (Review and Regulation) [2016] VCAT 2150, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) upheld Dr Syme’s application for review.

VCAT set aside the Medical Board’s condition on his practice on the basis that the Tribunal could not form a reasonable belief that “Dr Syme’s conduct places persons at serious risk or that it is necessary to take immediate action to protect public safety” (para 185).

One of the ironies of this decision was that Dr Syme relied successfully on the much-contested distinction between “foresight and intention”.

He successfully denied intending to hasten Mr Erica’s life, or the life of his other patients, despite sometimes giving them possession of a well-known “euthanatic drug” which could not lawfully be used in medical practice in Australia, and despite knowing that his patients’ suicide was – at least – a possible consequence of his action.

The conventional account of palliative care is careful to maintain the distinction between foresight and intention; that is, it acknowledges a conceptual, legal and moral distinction between intending to end a patient’s life, and taking actions with the foresight that death might be a highly likely consequence of those actions.

This distinction does good work in some areas of medicine.  For example, it permits a surgeon to carry out highly risky surgery, including surgery that will “probably fail”, but which may nevertheless represent a patient’s best hope.

The question the Tribunal faced was whether this distinction is appropriately drawn when a doctor delivers euthanatic drugs into the hand of the patient, clearing the way for the patient to commit suicide.  Can the doctor plausibly deny having any intention to assist the patient’s suicide if the patient goes ahead and takes the drug?

This question turned on whether Dr Syme could plausibly argue that his game plan, in giving his patients Nembutal, was to assist the patient to recover a sense of control about their dying process, thereby relieving psychological distress and re-casting the doctor’s actions as a form of palliative care.

In his evidence, Dr Syme admitted he had counselled approximately 1700 patients about end-of-life matters during his career, and had given Nembutal to approximately 10% of them (para 70).

In rare cases Dr Syme would give Nembutal to a patient on his first visit with them because they were at the end stage of a terminal disease and suffering greatly.

However, Dr Syme did not keep written records of the psychological condition of his patients, nor document their mental state after he gave them Nembutal (para 70).

 

Asserting intentions

In A Good Death, Dr Syme pointed to the frailty of doctors’ intentions, writing that:

A doctor’s intentions in end-of-life decisions may be complex, ambiguous, multifactorial and uncertain, and an inadequate basis for legal definition (Syme 2008, 25).

In this case, however, Dr Syme was clear about the purpose of his actions.

“I can say that categorically, that my intention is to give a sense of control and by so doing to ease their suffering” said Dr Syme (para 57).

Dr Syme agreed that doctors are not authorised to prescribe barbiturates like Nembutal, and that this drug cannot be legally obtained by a medical practitioner.

However, the Tribunal pointed out that the lawfulness of Dr Syme’s conduct in obtaining the drug was not in issue.  The Tribunal’s task was limited to determining whether Dr Syme was a danger to his patients (para 137).

In the end, the Tribunal accepted that Dr Syme’s intention in giving patients possession of Nembutal was to give them relief from psychological and existential suffering, and that this palliation occurs because patients feel an increased sense of control and certainty about how their life will end (paras. 129, 143).

The Tribunal also decided that, to the extent that the giving of Nembutal to patients gave them the opportunity to use the drug to end their lives, that consequence (even if foreseen) was “not intended by Dr Syme and can be seen as a secondary but unintended consequence”.

Referring to the principle of “double effect”, the Tribunal wrote that: “The fact that the treatment also has the effect of providing an opportunity for the patient to later ingest the Nembutal is not intended by Dr Syme and can be seen as a secondary but unintended consequence” (147, para (i)).

The Tribunal concluded by saying that it was satisfied that the “the holistic approach adopted by Dr Syme [was] entirely focused upon supporting the patient in life rather than pre-empting the patient’s death” (para 179).

As a result, the Tribunal disagreed that Dr Syme posed a serious risk to persons, or to Mr Erica, and set aside the condition the Medical Board of Australia had imposed on Dr Syme’s practice.

 

A new boundary for palliative care?

In the well-known case of R v Cox (1992) 12 BMLR 38), a doctor administered Potassium Chloride to a patient with the intention of inducing cardiac arrest and death.

KCl has no therapeutic properties, and so its administration supported the inference of an intention to kill.  Since the body had been cremated, Dr Cox was charged with attempted murder only.  He was convicted; his merciful motive was not considered relevant.

If Dr Cox had merely given possession of the KCL to his patient on the premise that it might relieve suffering by giving the patient a greater sense of control, leaving it up to the patient whether or not to ingest the drug, could he – and should he – have avoided liability on that basis?

That is an issue of criminal law that awaits determination in Australia.

However, unlike the practice of “terminal sedation” – which ensures that a patient dies while unconscious due to sedation, doctors who dispense non-licensed drugs to patients in the quantities that would be needed for a successful suicide are essentially acting outside the conventions of the specialty of palliative care.

Making oneself a test case is a risky business.  Dr Syme risks consequences that go well beyond a condition being placed on his right to practice medicine.

That said, from my knowledge of him, Dr Syme is a decent, compassionate doctor and if I were terminally ill I would consider myself fortunate to have him at my bedside.

Moral conservatives may feel this ruling gives Syme carte blanche to assist suicides, inappropriately asserting an innocent intention while giving patients lethal quantities of a non-therapeutic drug that doctors have no business distributing.

Patients like Mr Erica may beg to differ.  They are less interested in the coherence of medical law, and more interested in a good death.

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School’s Master of Health Law and Graduate Diploma in Health Law are open to both lawyers and non-lawyers.  Units of study taught in 2017 include Death Law, taught by Professor Cameron Stewart on 20, 21 April & 11, 12 May 2017.  For information on Sydney Health Law, the Centre for Health Law at Sydney Law School, click here.