Saturday, February 10, 2007

One In Three Australian Medical Specialists Admit They Will Break The Law To End Infants Suffering

The crime is not using pain and consciousness relieving drugs to hasten the end of a terribly unfortunate life. The crime is that compassionate medical professionals must break Australian law to do so.

Below is a story that quietly appeared in the Australian media and then disappeared again, almost without a sound.

It was quite surprising that no conservative groups or right-wingers latched onto this story and raised a fuss. It is a mark of a mature society when medical professionals are left to do their jobs with the trust of the community behind them. That the hard choices they sometimes have to make, that we rarely hear about, are not made in a spontaneous fashion, nor spuriously, and are only done so as to end pain and human misery where it is reasonably possible to do so.

Yet it remains an appalling tragedy that these medicos must break the law by using drugs to bring about a fast and humane end to human suffering in lives so young, yet it is legal to let a three month old baby die of starvation or asphyxiation instead.

The crime is not the action, in these cases. The crime is the law.

From 'The Australian' :

One in three medical specialists is prepared to break the law by using painkillers or sedatives to hasten the death of a baby born with a severe life-threatening disability.

An anonymous survey of neonatologists in Australia and New Zealand also found almost half were willing to use medication to speed up death in critically ill newborns for whom further treatment was considered hopeless.

Peter Barr, a senior physician at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney, who conducted the study, said the desire to alleviate a baby's pain and suffering sometimes outweighed doctors' concerns about the law.

"This was a self-reporting questionnaire where neonatologists responded to hypothetical situations, so we don't know exactly what they do in practice, but we know what their preferences are," Dr Barr said. "They were presenting their views, knowing that they were not lawful."

While neonatologists commonly withdraw or withhold treatment in newborns with a terminal disease or severe disability, it is illegal to use medication to hasten a person's death.

However, doctors reported that they would prefer to use painkillers or sedation to hasten death, rather than withholding oxygen or nutrients.

"For example, if further medical treatment has been deemed therapeutically non-beneficial or overly burdensome, then neonatologists may consider it more compassionate and humane to purposefully hasten death unlawfully with analgesia-sedation than, for instance, to forgo gastric tube feeding, which may be lawful," the study found.

"Hence neonatologists seem to support the moral notion that it is sometimes 'better to kill than let die' - even though the former is unlawful and seems not to respect the 'sanctity of life'."

Dr Barr also discovered there was a link between doctors' personal fear of death and their ethical beliefs. "Neonatologists who said that they were prepared to hasten death when death was inevitable had a greater of fear of death than those who thought that it was unacceptable," Dr Barr said.

"Fear of the dying process and premature death may unconsciously motivate these neonatologists to do what they can to ease the baby's suffering and hasten their death, and that takes priority over the legal implications."

University of Queensland professor of medical ethics Malcolm Parker told The Australian doctors who chose to break the law were motivated by compassion.

"It's never easy for clinicians faced with that situation but I'm sure they feel compelled in very severe cases to do what they believe is the most humane thing," he said. "In that sense, ethically they may not find it a difficult decision to make but I'm sure the idea of breaking the law would not be easy."