By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
Terminally ill Victorians will have the right to take their own lives from 2019 onwards if end-of-life legislation passes through the upper house. Following a four day debate in the Legislative Assembly, a landmark assisted dying bill was approved on October 20.
Lower house politicians proposed over 300 amendments to the government-sponsored bill, but all of them failed. And after a 26 hour sitting, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 was finally put to a conscience vote late last Friday morning, passing with 47 votes to 37.
An expert panel was tasked with developing the legislation, after the End of Life Choices inquiry tabled its final report in June last year. Headed by former Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Brian Owler, the panel made 66 recommendations that informed the bill.
Deliberations over the assisted dying bill will begin in the Legislative Council next Thursday, and the final vote is set to take place early the following week. Although the vote in the upper house is set to be tight, proponents of the bill believe Victorians will be given the choice to die with dignity.
For the few who need it
Victorian Reason MLC Fiona Patten initiated the parliamentary inquiry that led to the legislating of the bill. She said that while it’s “very rewarding” to have seen the bill come so far, it’s also “quite nerve-racking,” as she feels “a lot of responsibility for this legislation passing.”
“In many ways, the laws will mean peace of mind,” Ms Patten explained. “If things get too hard, we can make end of life decisions on our own terms.” While the laws will only affect “a tiny number of Victorians,” they’ll provide “a sense of security if the worst comes to the worst.”
The proposed laws would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal drug to terminally ill patients with less than 12 months left to live, so they can take their own lives. The individual must be over the age of 18, and they must be suffering from an illness that cannot be relieved in a tolerable manner.
The Victorian legislation is largely modelled on assisted dying laws in the US state of Oregon, which legalised the procedure back in 1997. Very few people in that state actually take up the option, with only 0.4 percent of deaths in Oregon attributed to physician-assisted dying.
Patient and doctor protections
The assisted dying bill provides 68 safeguards to prevent the misuse use of the scheme. And it creates a range of new offences with severe penalties applying.
A person, including a doctor, who administers a prescribed lethal drug to a patient who has a permit to administer themselves can be sentenced to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. While an individual who coerces another to take part in the scheme can be sentenced to five years prison time.
The legislation also provides a number of protections from criminal liability for those assisting the dying. A medical practitioner who carries out the procedure in a way that’s in accordance with the laws is not guilty of an offence or liable for professional misconduct.
According to Ms Patten, these protections are an important step, as there are already doctors out there in community providing this assistance to the terminally ill. “It’s completely unregulated,” she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. “This will now give them guidelines and safeguards in that process.”
A patient’s decision to undertake the procedure will have to be endorsed by two doctors, as well as two independent witnesses, who have nothing to gain from the death. “It will be a very transparent process for the doctors and for the people who are suffering,” Ms Patten added.
NSW to follow suit
A similar piece of legislation was introduced into the NSW upper house by Nationals MLC Trevor Khan on September 21. The co-sponsored Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 was prepared by a cross-party working group over the last two years.
NSW Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi is a member of the parliamentary working group on assisted dying. “It is really heartening to see the Victorian bill move through the lower house, despite the intense misinformation campaign being waged against it,” she said.
Under the NSW legislation, a medical practitioner could prescribe a terminally ill patient with less than 12 months left to live with a substance that would assist them in dying. The patient must be over the age of 25, and be experiencing severe pain or suffering that they deem unacceptable.
Dr Faruqi explained that the support in the community for the right to die is overwhelming. “It is cruel and inhumane to force a person to suffer when nothing can be done to relieve their pain and the person voluntarily wants to end their life.”
The legislation has the backing of the Greens, independents and members of both major parties. However, the doctor said she is disappointed that NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and Opposition leader Luke Foley are already both firmly against assisted dying laws, even before the debate begins.
“If Victoria is able to pass their laws,” Dr Faruqi continued, “it is only a matter of time before people across Australia will have the right to die with dignity.”
The want of the people
An Essential Research poll conducted in August found that of the 1,000 people surveyed nationally, 73 percent supported voluntary assisted dying, while a Victorian survey in September found 72 percent of the 500 respondents support the proposed new laws.
Former and current members of the AMA have spoken out in opposition to assisted dying laws. In November last year, an AMA survey found that 50 percent of doctors who responded said they didn’t support assisted dying procedures, while 38 percent said they did.
Still, the overwhelming majority of the 4,000 doctors surveyed said that if end-of-life laws were enacted, then they should be the ones to provide the assistance.
“We know that the vast majority of Victorians support this legislation,” the leader of the Reason Party concluded. “They support the right for people at the end of their lives to have some autonomy about when and where they die.”