Dying with Dignity Laws Passed in Victoria


By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim

Historic voluntary euthanasia laws passed Victoria’s upper house after a 28-hour marathon sitting, and the state is expected to become the first to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill.

The second reading resulted in 22 votes being registered in favour of the bill and 18 against, despite a vocal dissent by conservative members. The law passed the lower house by 47 votes to 37 last month, and will now return to that house in a slightly amended form.

The lower house debate will be limited to the amendments passed in the upper house, and the scheme is expected to commence in June 2019

The criteria

The bill is designed to give Victorians who are in intolerable pain and are expected to live for less than six months the right to have their lives ended.

The life expectancy will be 12 months for people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Motor Neurone Disease.

Patients will need to:

  • Be over the age of 18,
  • Be of sound mind,
  • Have lived in Victoria for at least 12 months, and
  • Be suffering in a way that “cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable”.

The patient would need to administer the lethal dose themselves, unless they were unable to do so, in which case a doctor could deliver the drugs.

Safeguards

The legislation contains 68 safeguards designed to prevent misuse, including new criminal offences to protect vulnerable people against abuse and coercion, and a special board to review all cases.

The process involves the following steps:

  • The patient must make the initial request to access the scheme. A doctor is not permitted to initiate discussion or suggest voluntary assisted dying.
  • The patient must make two formal requested, as well as a written statement.
  • Two independent doctors will need to assess whether the patient falls within the legal criteria, before signing off. Doctors will have the right to refuse to provide information, or to prescribe or administer an assisted-dying substance if they conscientiously object.
  • A doctor will prescribe the substance, which will be dispensed by a pharmacist.
  • If able to do so, the patient will administer the lethal substance themselves. If unable, a doctor will be permitted to assist.

Political support

Eleven government MPs backed the bill, as did four Liberals, five Greens, the ‘Reason’ Party’s Fiona Patten and ‘Vote 1 Local Jobs’ Party MP James Purcell.

Conservatives MP Rachel Carling-Jenkins opposed the bill, saying it equates to the legal issuance of “death permits”, and the Australian Christian Lobby accused the government of “embracing a culture of death”.

Premier Daniel Andrews says the law will help provide dignity to terminally ill people who are at the end of their lives.

“It’s about providing for those who have for too long been denied a compassionate end the control, the power over the last phase of their journey,” he remarked.

Palliative care is a better option

A number of conservative members argued that greater funding for palliative care is preferable to assisted dying, as it does not carry the same risks of misuse.

However, upper house President Bruce Atkinson pointed to research suggesting palliative care cannot relieve every patient’s suffering, adding that “[t]o drug a person to the point that they’re comatose is hardly compassion”.

Members in support of the bill criticised the newfound conservative interest in palliative care, labelling the argument as a means of obstruction and pointing out that the new bill and greater funding for palliative care can coexist and indeed complement one another.

The debate led the government to include $19 million for palliative care in its $62 million funding package for better end-of-life choices.

Assisted dying law fails in NSW

Last week, a private member’s bill to introduce assisted dying failed by a single vote in NSW parliament.

Dying with Dignity vice president Shayne Higson said he was “heartbroken” by the result. “I just can’t believe that our elected representatives can turn their backs on the suffering people in our community,” he remarked.

Popular support in NSW

Polls consistently suggest that a majority of NSW residents support laws which would give the terminally ill the right to end their lives with medical assistance.

The latest independent poll suggests that 70 per cent of people in NSW support such laws. About 18 per cent were undecided and 13 per cent were opposed or strongly opposed.

But it seems the conservative voices in the NSW parliament feel their opinions matter more than the will of their constituents.


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