In the wake of Attorney General John Ashcroft?s attempt to defeat the Euthanasia law in Oregon, it?s interesting to note a new study showing that more than one-third of the doctors in Australia admit helping to end the lives of their terminally ill patients. In most cases the patients hadn?t asked them to perform euthanasia.

The survey of 683 doctors was done by Dr. Charles Douglas of the University of Newcastle and published in the Medical Journal of Australia. He found that 247 doctors gave terminally ill patients high doses of pain-killers, with the intention of bringing on their deaths, which is defined as euthanasia under Australian law and is illegal. This is what the new Oregon law would give doctors permission to do (although it does not say they are required to do it).

However, Douglas believes that many of the doctors may have given patients large doses of pain-killers strictly in order to relieve pain, which is legal. The only difference is the doctor?s intention.

?If doctor A is a Catholic and says ?I never do this,? he reports his intention as only to treat pain,? says Douglas. ?But doctor B could be comfortable with euthanasia and says his intention is hastening death. They might be using the same doses. But there may be a philosophical difference.?

It?s almost impossible to tell whether a patient died from pain-killers or from natural causes, he says. ?The vast majority of patients were only a few hours or days away from their death. The patient is barely conscious and not in a situation to discuss what happens next.? About five per cent of doctors admitted to giving a patient a single, lethal injection when the patient clearly requested it. This result is consistent with other countries, he feels, although U.S. physicians have never been formally polled about this and in the current politically-charged atmosphere, many of them would probably not respond to such a survey.

Euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke says the survey shows the need for laws to change so that doctors can help patients to have a quick, rather than a slow and painful death. ?There?s obviously a need for some form of legislative protection,? he says. ?The [doctors] are increasing morphine, increasing morphine and ?Oh my goodness, the patient?s dead.? In many cases the patient and the families simply want a simple death.? He believes most families know when a doctor is causing a patient?s death through the use of pain-killers. ?There?s a nod and a wink and an understanding that this is what is going on.?

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