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How should Australia respond to media-publicised cases of euthanasia in Belgium?

DLS senior lecturer Dr Neera Bhatia discusses her latest journal article.

Tackling life and death issues is not something Deakin Law School (DLS) senior lecturer and Director of Research Dr Neera Bhatia is afraid of doing through her research.

If her research into end-of-life decision-making brings out strong emotions in people, even better, because it means the important issues are encouraging people to voice their opinions.

‘We talk about our weekends, the football, kids, work – but the one thing we tend to shy away from and not talk about is something that will happen to every one of us. Death,’ says Dr Bhatia.

In her latest article published in the Journal of Law and Medicine, Dr Bhatia discusses the topic of euthanasia.

Looking at three case developments and one piece of legislation in Belgium, the article unpacks how Australia should respond to sensationalised media coverage of euthanasia.

Dr Bhatia and her co-authors identified the cases through a series of media database and internet searches. This included three developments involving individuals who requested access to euthanasia and also the recent changes to the Belgian Act on Euthanasia 2002, allowing children access to this regime under specific criteria.   

‘The three individual cases all received extensive media coverage in Australia with sensationalised headlines. It’s no wonder the general public might assume the worst about euthanasia,’ explains Dr Bhatia.

‘I’m a member of the general public, however I am also knowledgeable in this area of law – I thought it was important to take a step back and actually look at what was going on behind the headlines and how Australia should practically and rationally respond.’

The Belgian Act on Euthanasia 2002 permits euthanasia under strict conditions. This includes the patient’s age and condition and that the request must be durable, in writing and have requirements met by the physician.

By no means is this a quick and easy resolution. The decision of euthanasia is rational, measured and must meet strict criteria.

‘The cases identified in Belgium are by no means that ‘controversial’ they seem to be the cases that have been publicised to ‘sell’ newspapers,’ says Dr Bhatia.

‘Unfortunately, this causes confusion and scares the general public about the checks and balances and criteria that must be met before the process of euthanasia can occur in Belgium.’

Only last month, The Victorian Parliament’s End of Life Choices Committee released a final report and made a number of recommendations concerning assisting dying legislation.

One of the recommendations the report made was to introduce legislation that would lawfully allow adults suffering with serious and incurable medical conditions, to be given assistance to end their lives under certain circumstances.

Dr Bhatia says, ‘this would be an important and positive development towards giving individuals access to dying with dignity in certain limited circumstances’.

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