Dying with dignity might become a reality for the terminally ill in Victoria, as end-of-life legislation is set to be introduced into state parliament in the second half of next year. Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced on Thursday that all MPs will be granted a conscience vote on the matter.
An expert panel will be tasked with drafting the bill over the next six months. The premier said he’d be voting in support of it. He changed his views on assisted dying, after his father passed away in April this year following a long battle with cancer.
The legislation will be consistent with the assisted dying regulations recommended by the End of Life Choices parliamentary inquiry. The report – which made 49 recommendations and called for amendments to the Crimes Act to protect doctors – was tabled in parliament in June.
The right to die will only be available for terminally ill adults. To be considered, an individual must reside in Victoria, have a decision-making capacity and be close to the end of their life.
The decision must be endorsed by two doctors. A patient would then be prescribed a lethal tablet, and a doctor would assist people who are not capable of taking the pill themselves.
If passed towards the end of next year, the laws would not come into effect until 2019, as the committee recommended an 18-month delay.
The politician leading the way
Victorian Sex Party MLC Fiona Patten initiated the parliamentary inquiry. She told Sydney Criminal Lawyers® that the decision vindicates all the hard work and dedication that was put into the report.
Along with the committee members, she commended input from Coroner’s Court, the Victorian police and the Law Institute of Victoria.
According to Ms Patten, people are currently being left “to die slowly and in unnecessary discomfort and pain.” And while palliative care has advanced, it’s not the answer for everyone. “I, as an individual, feel that I should have the right to decide when I’ve had enough of dying,” she said.
White coat criticisms
Palliative care doctors warned the state government earlier this week not to enact euthanasia laws, as the new system would provide better quality care to patients who choose assisted dying, than for people receiving end-of-life care.
And they’re not the only health professionals concerned. A fortnight ago, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) released a position statement that they don’t support euthanasia. However, the majority of doctors would help end the lives of terminally ill patients if the procedure was legal.
AMA Victoria president Lorraine Baker told reporters on Wednesday that doctors should be able to opt out of assisting a patient to die if they morally object. She said the association wanted to be involved in the development of any legislation.
Doctors already helping people to die
As Ms Patten points out there are already doctors in the community providing physician-assisted dying. “I respect the compassion of those doctors that are providing that terminal relief to their patients,” she explained. “But we need regulation and transparency in this.”
And as for those terminally ill patients that want to die, but don’t have a doctor’s assistance, they’re forced to take their own lives. “For many of them they’re doing that alone for fear of incriminating family and friends,” Ms Patten said.
During the inquiry, Ms Patten heard that some people are taking their lives in “the most violent ways.” She outlined the case of a 93-year-old woman who smuggled a razor blade back into her aged care facility to slit her wrists, and another where an older man shot himself with a nail gun.
Ms Patten believes the bill will be passed, as the “parliament actually reflects the community that elected it.” She feels that the “majority of members of parliament do believe that people should have the right to die with dignity.”
However, South Australian parliamentarians held a conscience vote over a euthanasia bill in November last year and knocked it back. It was defeated after fourteen similar bills also failed in the SA parliament over recent years.
Euthanasia used to be legal in Australia
The law was subsequently overturned by the 1997 Commonwealth Euthanasia Laws Act, as federal parliament can override territory laws. The private members’ bill was introduced by Liberal MP Kevin Andrews.
Marshall Perron was NT chief minister at the time. “What we underestimated was the strength of feeling by the religiously powerful in federal parliament,” he told the ABC last year.
During a speech he gave at the National Press Club in August this year, television presenter Andrew Denton spoke out about a network of powerful Catholic politicians and businessmen that were behind the repeal of the NT euthanasia law. He claimed that this “theocracy within our democracy” is still in play today.
Fiona Patten agrees. She says there’s “a minority of very powerful people” that will oppose the bill. “The Catholic Church punches well above its weight in the influence that it makes on government policy,” she said, adding that they will target MPs and try to convince them to vote against the bill.
Militant euthanasia advocates
Meanwhile, the proposed Victorian laws don’t go far enough for some euthanasia proponents. Philip Nitschke was the doctor behind the first four legally assisted deaths in the world at the time it was lawful in the NT.
Last Sunday, Mr Nitschke announced the launch of Exit Action: a militant pro-euthanasia organisation that would be coordinating direct action strategies to force legislative change. The group believes the right to die should be available for all competent adults, regardless of sickness.
Dignified dying across the globe
Various forms of euthanasia and assisted dying are legal in some parts of the world.
In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country to legalise euthanasia. It was followed by Belgium that same year. In the US, assisted dying is legal in five states. Oregon was the first to legalise the procedure in 1997. The proposed Victorian laws are based on the Oregon model.
Voluntary euthanasia involves a person giving their consent to have their life ended by a doctor, who then performs the act. Whereas physician-assisted dying involves a doctor prescribing a lethal dose of medication to a patient, who performs the final act themselves.
The End of Life Choices parliamentary inquiry went on a fact-finding mission to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and the US. The mission led Ms Patton to conclude that claims people “were being exploited in these jurisdictions where physician-assisted dying was legal” were completely unfounded.
The group found that in regions where people have the right to die, very few people actually take up the option. In Oregon, only 0.4 percent of deaths in the state are attributed to physician-assisted dying.
And as for those concerns…
Ms Patten also believes concerns that assisted dying could have a negative effect on palliative care are misguided, as access to end-of-life treatments had improved in the countries the mission visited.
“So we were seeing better palliative care in the jurisdictions where physician-assisted dying was allowed,” she found.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.