Call for legal protection over prescription of painkillers

28 October 2010

State laws should be changed to give formal protection to doctors who prescribe large doses of powerful painkillers to ease the suffering of dying people, according to Associate Professor Cameron Stewart.

In an article published in today's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, Associate Professor Stewart explains that NSW doctors can prescribe doses that may accelerate a patient's death under a common law ''principle of double effect'' - which deems this acceptable provided the motive is pain relief.

But because this is case law, there is no guarantee it would be accepted as a defence in a murder charge.

''We need explicit recognition in legislation that doctors should be able to give pain relief even to the point of hastening death,'' Associate Professor Stewart asserts.

He adds that he present practice masked the fact that doctors' decisions to initiate treatment - or to withhold or withdraw it - regularly precipitated patient deaths and consequently muddied the waters around the separate question of doctors' assistance in voluntary euthanasia.

''If we have a more clear idea about how death is managed now, legally we'll have a better basis on which to debate voluntary euthanasia,'' he says.

Associate Professor Stewart will discuss the legal status of caring for the dying at a Sydney Law School symposium this afternoon, alongside the cancer surgeon Charles Douglas, who has surveyed medical professionals' attitudes to treatments that may hasten death - Crime or Care? The Problem of Cause of Death and 'Intention to Kill' in End-of-Life Care

Associate Professor Stewart is the Director of the Centre for Health Governance, Law & Ethics at the Sydney Law School, which aims to promote and support innovative scholarship and teaching in all areas of health regulation including bioethics and health policy.
The Centre is the foundation for one of Australia's largest postgraduate programs in Health Law.

View the entire article - Call for legal protection over prescription of painkillers - Sydney Morning Herald

Contact: Greg Sherington

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