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Call for discussion on euthanasia

Australia is witnessing a shift in public attitudes to possibly support euthanasia for people with dementia, says a leading expert on healthcare ethics.

Chair in nursing at Deakin University, Professor Megan-Jane Johnstone, said alarmist and negative framing of Alzheimer’s disease as an “epidemic” and “the worst of all diseases” was seriously undermining public understanding of the disease and the care options available to them.

“One example of the collective failure of society to recognise Alzheimer’s as a manageable disease can be found in the conventional exclusion of people with dementia from palliative care resources,” she said.

Johnstone said in the past decade high-profile figures such as UK author Sir Terry Pratchett have used their position of prominence to influence the public debate on euthanasia.

Pratchett, who has publicly stated he will carry out his wish for assisted suicide before his early onset Alzheimer’s advances, has helped to popularise euthanasia internationally as an end-of-life “solution” for people diagnosed with the disease.

In a forthcoming book, Johnstone will argue that negative framing of dementia is being subtly “drip fed” into the public consciousness by the Australian media and a new language for discussing dementia was urgently required.

These messages have also given rise to the misleading perception that, unlike other diseases, Alzheimer’s “always wins”.

“This perception is misleading since there are many diseases that cannot be cured and, with the passage of time, will result in the unpreventable and premature death of an individual,” Johnstone said.

“The proposal to allow euthanasia as a morally warranted option in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is neither simple nor straightforward.”

She said recent moves by some Alzheimer’s associations to question their traditional neutral stance on euthanasia and to consider supporting it as a bona fide medical regimen in people diagnosed with the disease was one of the most significant factors contributing to a shift in attitudes.

Johnstone warned that this trend has significant implications for the long-term allocation of resources for the treatment and management of dementia.

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