Palliative care nursing and voluntary euthanasia


Legislative change could provide more end-of-life choices for the terminally ill.

Dying With Dignity, a group founded in the 1970s, wants to legalise medically-assisted dying or Voluntary Euthanasia (VE) in New South Wales.

It is currently an offence in NSW to assist a person to die. Nurses, doctors or family members who assist a dying person to end their lives risk deregistration and criminal prosecution.

Dr Sarah Edelman, a clinical psychologist and member of Dying With Dignity, says the group’s main goal is to influence the political process to bring about legislative change. This would enable people who are hopelessly ill and suffering to exercise the choice to end their lives peacefully without fear of loved ones or medical practitioners being criminally charged.

People who support medically assisted dying recognise that legal safeguards should be in place, for example, against greedy relatives, so that people don’t feel pressured to end their lives.

There are already several countries that have legalised VE including US states Washington (2009), Oregon (1997) and Montana (2010); the Netherlands (2000); Switzerland; Belgium (2002); Luxembourg (2009); and Albania (1999). Research and case studies show that the models are working well.

Surveys and case studies also overwhelmingly show that public support for the issue has been steadily increasing over the past 20 years:

  • 85% of Australians support VE when a person is terminally ill and suffering (Newspoll 2009)
  • 75% of Christians support VE (Newspoll, 2007)
  • 58% of those with non-Christian religions support VE (Newspoll, 2007)
  • 91% of those with no religion support VE (Newspoll, 2007)
  • 80% of nurses who responded to a NSWNA survey (1997) supported VE in some circumstances.

Palliative care is an important aspect of medically-assisted deaths and in Belgium and Oregon (the more recent converts to VE), spending and resources on palliative care has increased substantially.

Sharon Wiley, a Palliative Care CNC at Sacred Heart Hospital, says euthanasia is often about control not just dignity.

‘From a palliative nurse’s perspective, dying with dignity is a very important goal of the care provided in palliative care. However, based on my own experience of caring for many palliative care patients, the topic of euthanasia is often raised but rarely requested.

‘Advances in palliative care have meant improvement in the available medications including opioids that are simpler to administer and are very effective in relieving suffering. Each request needs to involve open, sensitive communication in the clinical setting. This usually involves comprehensive palliative care support from a multidisciplinary team. The request for euthanasia is often about control rather than dignity.’

Dr Edelman agrees that palliative care is important. ‘We feel palliative care is really important. The issue for us is about choice and we feel that the option of end-of-life choices should be part of palliative care.’

Do you have thoughts on VE you would like to share with us? Would you like to see legislative changes implemented?

Image credit: NSWNA, and



  1. Nurses have a critical role to play in the public voluntary euthanasia debate. Being on the ‘coal face’, being witness to more dying patients than doctors your experience and opinion matters.

    I urge you all to express your views either individually or thru your asociations. please do not leave the field to doctors, the AMA, politicians or the church.


  2. Euthanasia is alive and well at our Health Service. I will blow the lid on it very shortly. It abhors me that some nurses are involved in it with family involved too.

    • what do you mean “euthanasia is alive and well”? I am thinking your interprtetation of euthanasia is miss lead???

  3. I am speaking for myself.
    As a Nurse that has witnessed many people dying and whilst there are many that pass on peacefully, there are also many who experience severe pain and confusion in their last days, which has been upsetting for them as well as family who have to stand by helplessly. I have heard from many in the profession that we have improved end of life with medication. I have witnessed the opposite. I still remember one case of a client having violent seizures and the young family watching for 2 days as nothing we administered would stop them. I will opt for Euthanasia but would not like to assist in any way on a client.


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