Aussie doctors may ease pain, hasten death

By Time of article published Nov 19, 2001

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Sydney - A survey of Australian doctors has found that one third administered high doses of painkillers to relieve suffering and hasten the death of terminally ill patients.

Australia's leading euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke said the survey revealed the need to legalise euthanasia in Australia, while anti-euthanasia groups condemned the study.

The survey of almost 700 doctors, to be published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, found 250 doctors had given painkillers in doses greater than necessary.

The doctors' first intention was to relieve suffering, but they were aware the high dosage would hasten death, according to the survey by Australia's Newcastle University.

About 20 percent of the doctors said they had taken the action without an explicit request from the patient.

Euthanasia is illegal in Australia.

But it is legal for a doctor to administer drugs to keep a terminally ill patient comfortable even if this incidentally hastens death.

The Australian Medical Association, which represents doctors, is opposed to legalising euthanasia.

"To license doctors to kill people is really a step society should not be taking," said AMA spokesperson Dr Trevor Mudge.

In 1996, Australia's outback Northern Territory introduced the world's first voluntary euthanasia laws. Four people used the laws to die via lethal injection administered via a computer.

But the euthanasia laws were short lived with the national government overturning the legislation in 1997.

Nitschke, who helped the four die in the Territory, said the survey revealed the need for euthanasia laws that provide a quick death for terminally ill patients and protect doctors.

Nitschke said families knew when a doctor was hastening a patient's death under the cover of administering painkillers.

"The surgeons are increasing morphine and 'Oh my goodness, the patient's dead'. There's a nod and a wink and an understanding that this is what is going on," he said.

Right to Life Australia chair Margaret Tighe condemned the study, saying some doctors probably gave extra doses of painkillers without the intention of hastening death.

"There may be some who find it necessary to end the patient's pain and suffering but not do it because they want the patient to die," Tighe said. - Reuters

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