Assisted suicide: Best intentions or unsatisfactory professional conduct?

20 MAY 2022

 

There has been a longstanding push to legalise voluntary assisted dying in Australia. This has been in talks for a number of years now with many states and territories deciding that voluntary assisted dying is legal.

On 19 May 2022, euthanasia was, after a number of years of debating, legalised in NSW. This means that euthanasia has officially become legal in Australia!

Previously, terminally ill people were not able to choose the timing of their death. But, what happens when a doctor assists his patient (who was also his partner) to end her life?  Below, we provide you with a summary of a recent case that was heard at the Civil & Administrative Tribunal, prior to the legalisation of euthanasia, where the exact situation occurred.

The doctor’s partner, who was a registered nurse, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2006 and at the time of her death, her health had declined.  She only had weeks to live.  She made it very clear to her family that she intended to have control of her life and more specifically, how long she would endure the suffering associated with cancer and the treatment. She had previously expressed to her family that she would “end her life” with morphine.

One morning in July 2014, the partner’s family, including the doctor, gathered so that she could spend quality time with her family and say her goodbyes.  Following the gathering, she asked the doctor to go and purchase some groceries. She was alone at home. When the doctor returned home, he found his partner deceased. In her arm was a “butterfly needle”, which was connected via a cannula to a bag of fluid.  Ambulance and Police attended the home. 

The Police found a letter, written by the partner and addressed to the “Police Department”.  The partner specifically stated that no one had helped her or encouraged her to take her own life and as legal euthanasia is not possible in Australia, she had been forced to make a decision and implement her own euthanasia. The Police investigated the circumstances of the death and ultimately charged the doctor with “aid and abet suicide of another” in accordance with the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW).  An autopsy was performed which revealed that the direct cause of death was “opiate toxicity”.  The toxicology analysis revealed that her body contained high levels of morphine.  

The doctor was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, to be served by way of an Intensive Corrections Order.

The doctor’s conviction led to an investigation by the Health Care Complaints Commission (“the Commission”) into the doctor’s role in his partner’s suicide, as well as care and treatment provided to her.   The investigation revealed that the doctor had assisted his partner to die of suicide as he was prescribing various “Schedule 8 drugs” (drugs of addiction, including morphine).  He had also provided false information to the Police about the extent of his involvement in the suicide. 

The Commission argued that the doctor’s conduct amounted to unsatisfactory professional conduct.  One of the Commission’s concerns was that the doctor had inappropriately prescribed the Schedule 8 drugs without undertaking an appropriate and systematic assessment.  The doctor maintained that he wanted to assist her to “carry out” her wishes.  

As the doctor had been convicted of a serious criminal offence and had lied to the Police to protect himself, the Civil & Administrative Tribunal decided that it was appropriate to reprimand him and suspend his registration for six months.

The contents of this publication are for reference purposes only. This publication does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Specific legal advice should always be sought separately before taking any action based on this publication.

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