Euthanasia: the risk a person will be coerced into ending their life

The practice of ‘voluntary assisted dying’ is becoming more accepted around the world, and will be legal in Victoria from next year.

Although there is a growing acceptance of assisted dying in our society, it’s important to note the practise is associated with very serious risks – and one of the most significant risks is that an elderly person may be coerced into ending their own life.

When voluntary assisted dying is made legal, safeguards against coercion are always considered and included in legislation. The Victorian laws put 68 safeguards in place. Assisted dying will only be available to adults who are considered able to make their own decisions, have an incurable illness, are suffering intolerably, and are expected to die within six months. These safeguards are intended to prevent coercion from occurring.

A ‘burden’ on their loved ones

Many people towards the end of their life feel isolated and vulnerable, and are concerned they have become a burden on their loved ones. When elderly people require a great deal of care, these feelings of guilt can be particularly profound.

Feelings of guilt, accompanied by a person’s sense they no longer have anything offer society, may pressure an elderly person to consider euthanasia as a way out, both for them and to ease the burden they believe they place on their families.

Financial considerations: elder abuse

Elder abuse is becoming a growing problem in Australia, with some estimates putting the rate of elder abuse in Australia as high as 10 per cent of older Australians.

With the rising costs of living in Australia, families may become anxious that the cost of care, which is particularly high towards the end of life, are eroding their inheritance. If euthanasia is legalised, these financial concerns could be a subtle influence on the decision of whether or not a family supports their loved one’s the choice of euthanasia.

Sadly, families may also try to actively persuade their loved one to choose to die if they believe the death will improve their own financial situation.

A new standard for society

If elderly people see their friends around them opting for euthanasia, they may be inclined to make the same choice.

We are all influenced by what others around us are doing, and the subtle persuasion of new norms of society could encourage vulnerable people to take the steps towards euthanasia that they might not otherwise have considered for themselves.

Safeguarding against coercion

If euthanasia is introduced, it’s essential that strong safeguards are included to protect vulnerable people from being coerced into a decision to end their own lives. For example, those who have a pecuniary, or financial, interest in the patient should not be allowed to be involved in the euthanasia request process.

In our society, we have a responsibility to look after its most vulnerable members, to ensure their comfort, respect them, and protect them. While overall voluntary assisted dying may have advantages for society, there are very significant hurdles to overcome to ensure a safe system for all.

Please note: This article was edited on 11 July 2018.

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  1. The Andrews government has put safeguards in place to stop inappropriate euthanasia. The problem is not euthanasia but the woeful standard of aged care and palliative care in particular. People will make rational choices to end their lives when there is no real choice. The choices are sham or forced choices because the options are so bad. Suicide in residential age care has increased and it will increase further unless something is done to provide empathetic and humane care to people at the end of their lives.

  2. It is more accurate to say that the practice of ‘voluntary assisted dying’ (not the broad term ‘euthanasia’ that may be active or passive, voluntary or involuntary) is becoming more accepted around the world. There is significant demand for assisted dying from people experiencing intolerable suffering at the end of life and you fail to point out that the reason for its increasing acceptance is because of the substantial safeguards enacted to protect the vulnerable.

    ‘Assisted dying’ refers to the practice of a doctor providing a patient with the active means to voluntarily end their life. There are 68 safeguards in the Victorian legislation. Assisted dying will only be available to adults deemed able to make decisions and suffering from an incurable illness. They must also be experiencing intolerable suffering and expected to die within six months.

    Two doctors will have to sign off on the process, assessing whether the patient is eligible. Also, a patient will have to make two formal requests for a medically assisted death as well as a written statement. These two safeguards ensure that “those who have a pecuniary, or financial, interest in the patient” are excluded from the request process.

    According to The Conversation (2017), “Concerns that vulnerable people are at risk under such laws have been rejected in top peer-reviewed journals such as The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine as well as by the Canadian courts, who have cross-examined evidence testing the findings of this research. Justice Smith of the Supreme Court of British Columbia concluded that: the empirical evidence gathered in the two jurisdictions [Netherlands and Oregon] does not support the hypothesis that physician-assisted death has imposed a particular risk to socially vulnerable populations.”

    I am concerned that your article may unnecessarily elevate fear and anxiety in elderly people. It is misleading not to disclose the facts that, in all jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal, there are safeguards against the coercion you highlight designed to protect the vulnerable.

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