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Life and death decision making

"It's literally heart-stopping stuff."

Some ground-breaking research by a Deakin University academic is a matter of life and death – quite literally.

Rather than shy away from controversy, Deakin Law School lecturer Dr Neera Bhatia is tackling sometimes taboo health issues head on.

Asking the tough life and death questions

Dr Bhatia recently published a book that considers the legal and ethical issues on decisions to withhold or even withdraw treatment for extremely premature babies.

‘Part of my goal is to get discussion and debate happening. We need it and it's important.’

And a recently published paper raises the question of changing the definition of death in the legislation around heart transplants.

Life and death decisions and what's legal

It's literally heart-stopping stuff. The paper gets stuck into just what it means – in legal terms – when someone dies after the hearts stops.

‘Under current law, to take a heart from a person, for transplant to another, requires that death was due to irreversible cessation of cardiac function.

‘But, if you can transplant an organ from one person to another and it actually works, how can it be an irreversible condition? The real point is examining the legal basis of death of human tissue before a transplant takes place.’

An unstuffy Uni

Dr Bhatia came to Deakin University from the UK after securing an international scholarship in 2009 to do her PhD in health law.

‘I consider myself very lucky to be here at Deakin. It's not stuffy like some other universities. Deakin is innovative, technology driven and has a progressive culture.’

Dr Bhatia is passionate about her research and aims to be a recognised international scholar in her field.

The price of life?

‘We have to face the fact we're an aging population. And we need to ask the difficult questions such as how do we allocate finite resources for treatment,’ says Dr Bhatia.

‘Rather than keep such subjects taboo, we need to open up more discussion and have greater transparency in health policy.’

Controversial? You bet. Dr Bhatia has had her share of negative press but she says the overall response has been positive.

‘I can totally understand emotional responses. Life and death go to the core of what we are as human beings.’

Pushing the envelope

Neera Bhatia says she still has a long way to go and will continue to push the envelope – in a legal sense – about how decisions are made that can preserve life.

Dr Bhatia says advances in technology are happening so quickly that the law is continually playing catch-up.

‘Life and death affects us all. We're all going to die at some time. So my research has a community impact, it’s a discussion point that everyone in society has an opinion on.

‘What's great for me is that my work doesn't necessarily stay within the confines of a university library. By its very nature, it's out there creating a lot of discussion about the ethics of health decision-making and the legal implications.

‘It's very challenging and I believe the time has come for us to face the fact that we need to have this debate. Sometimes we are simply forced to have some very uncomfortable discussions about life and death.’

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