A DECISION will be taken within weeks on whether to switch off the “futile” life support for the woman left for dead in the boot of her car in Melbourne earlier this year.
Melbourne Magistrates Court heard today that Maria Korp would die in two weeks if medical intervention were removed. The magistrate hearing the case, Paul Smith, said Mrs Korp was “unlikely to recover” given the medical evidence before the court.
Mrs Korp is in a persistent vegetative state, a condition similar to that of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died last month after a tumultuous debate in the US over the morals of switching off life support for coma patients.
It seems the hospital is consulting Mrs Korp’s immediate family excluding her husband, who is charged with her attempted murder. I assume another family member has obtained an adult guardianship order permitting them to give directions in relation to life support in place of the husband as next-of-kin. This distinguishes the case from that of Terri Schiavo (whose husband, incidentally, was never accused of attempting to murder her, despite some odious and unfounded smears by some of the more ethically-challenged parts of the American Religious Right and their Republican panderers).
But otherwise there are quite a few parallels. I wonder whether Australia will deal with this situation more maturely than the Americans managed. It wouldn’t be difficult. I reckon it’s time for State governments, starting with Victoria, to revisit the question of comprehensive euthanasia legislation. That could at least mean that future Maria Korps or Terri Schiavos could be given a quick, painless and completely open lethal injection instead of being left to die slowly, or given a sly overdose that “accidentally” kills under the morally dubious “double effect” doctrine with which the AMA apparently feels entirely comfortable.
The Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act wasn’t a perfect model by any means, but it would certainly be a good place to start. This could be another subject for Nicholas Gruen’s list, where co-operative legislative effort by the States could productively outflank the Howard government and bring some certainty, dignity and firm ethical principle to a morally fraught area.
Of course, the conventional answer is that any legislative action in such an area is “courageous” in a Sir Humphrey Appleby sense i.e. one where any sort of positive action can only lose the votes of committed opponents, without necessarily gaining any from the general community. However, I’m not convinced this is necessarily the case with euthanasia laws:
A survey conducted by Newspoll in 1995-JUL found 81% of Australian adults support voluntary euthanasia. This is an increase over an earlier result of 79% in 1994-JUL. A poll by the Roy Morgan Research Centre in 1995-JUN showed similar results: 78% in favor. This is an increase from 66% in 1986. A separate poll showed that 60% of doctors and 78% of nurses in Victoria favored voluntary euthanasia. An additional poll was taken among 6500 Christian congregations, representing 19 denominations. They found that 40% agreed with assisted suicide for terminally ill persons; 30% opposed; 30% uncertain. Among older church attendees, support was higher (50% among those 60 and older).
These are very positive results, and there’s no reason to think support for euthanasia laws has dropped since 1995. This suggests that a well-drafted, well-researched uniform state law on voluntary euthanasia (along with clear rules for safe third party and/or court approval in “persistent vegetative” situations) would be likely to command strong public support.
PS – One reason why the family might well be reluctant to countenance active euthanasia measures in the Korp case is that it would almost certainly preclude murder charges (as opposed to attempted murder) against her husband. That creates a layer of ethical dilemma absent from the Schiavo case. Is it possible to be sure that Mrs Korp doesn’t feel pain or distress during the two weeks it will apparently take her to die if life support is turned off? If not, can inflicting avoidable pain on her be justified if it allows her alleged killer to be charged to the full extent his actions warrant?