Benjamin Franklin once wrote to a correspondent (in French): “… in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. Some may contest the certainty of taxes, but none may escape the certainty of death.
Coroners in NSW are tasked with finding the manner and cause of reportable deaths. Most of us do not know the manner and cause of our deaths, in the sense of pre-determining them – but there is a growing number of people (especially as the population ages and medical science develops to keep them alive for longer) who wish to do so. Many demand the choice to enable a dignified ending. These numbers are likely to increase and polling in Australia consistently shows strong support for the right.
It is called a number of things: voluntary euthanasia; assisted death; assisted suicide; physician-assisted suicide – even mercy killing or mercy-assisted suicide. I prefer “voluntary assisted dying” (as does Andrew Denton, a prominent campaigner in this area in Australia through Go Gentle Australia) because this describes the elements accurately. It is voluntary action by a person with capacity and will. It is the product of informed consent with a free choice made and agreement to action that will end life – and they are minimum requirements for it to be done morally and ethically.
It is assisted because to do it efficiently and effectively requires the assistance of a medical practitioner. It may be expert assistance to set up the conditions for the person to commit suicide (a word that some find has objectionable overtones, but which the law uses to describe ending one’s life by one’s own action). It may be expert administration of an agent that causes death. If another person is involved, he or she must also be appropriately protected, legally and otherwise.
It is dying. Death is a subject many people ignore until it becomes unavoidable and it may well be unpleasant. Birth was probably a bit of a struggle and death may be, too – but steps can be taken to remove some of the problems that may arise for the subject and for those close, and to give some dignity to the process where it might not otherwise be assured.