Victoria is getting closer to becoming the first Australian jurisdiction to legalise euthanasia.
It has been reported that half of the Victorian cabinet is now publicly in favour of legalising euthanasia, with at least another quarter yet to declare their support but privately in favour.
Premier Daniel Andrews has come out strongly in support of legalisation, with the recent death of his father from cancer strongly influencing his views. “We are not giving a dignified end, we are not giving the support, the love and care that every Victorian should be entitled to in their final moments,” Mr Andrews said.
Earlier this year, a survey by ‘Vote Compass’ suggested that 75% of Australians agree that:
“Terminally ill patients should be able to legally end their own lives with medical assistance.”
However, support by federal politicians is shaky – with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly stated that he is vehemently against euthanasia legislation.
Previous Victorian attempt
A 2008 Victorian Bill which proposed to give terminally ill people the right to die with the help of a doctor was defeated in the State’s Upper House by 25 votes to 13.
However, the views of Victorian politicians appear to be gradually falling in line with community sentiment, opening up the possibility of a further motion and conscience vote.
Form of future legislation
In June this year, a Victorian inquiry into end-of-life choices recommended that legislation be enacted to provide adults who are suffering from serious and incurable conditions “… assistance to die in certain circumstances”.
The report suggested the request to die should come directly from the patient, rather than a person who has power of attorney, and only in the ‘final stages’ of their lives. It recommended that the patient’s request should be checked at three stages: an initial verbal request, followed by a formal written request and a final verbal request. The patient could, of course, withdraw their request at any time.
The request would additionally need to be approved by a primary doctor and an independent secondary doctor who is qualified to make a prognosis on the specific condition. The primary doctor would then prescribe a lethal drug, which the patient could self-administer without any further assistance in most cases.
The inquiry also recommended the establishment of an Assisted Dying Review Board, to ensure that doctors comply with all legislative requirements. Mechanisms would also be implemented to ensure that breaches are reported to law enforcement bodies.
Paediatrician Dr Harley Powell said the report is reflective of community sentiment, and should be implemented without delay.
“It’ll relieve the suffering of people who are fearful of the consequences of dying,” Dr Powell said.
As it currently stands, Victorian law allows doctors to withdraw treatment if requested to do so by a patient, even if the withdrawal is likely to result in death.
Doctors may also deliver what could be a lethal dose of morphine or other palliative care drugs, as long as the intention is solely to relieve pain and not to kill, and only where the patient has suffered a significant period of degeneration and pain. Many point out that this situation equates to an indirect form of euthanasia, except for the fact that patients must first suffer for a long time.
Meanwhile, a Bill recently introduced into the Victorian State Parliament is seeking to allow individuals to withdraw their consent to future live-saving treatment in certain emergency situations, meaning doctors would be prohibited from saving the lives of patients if the prescribed situations arise.
Euthanasia by proxy
The current state of the law has resulted in many doctors hastening their patients’ deaths upon request by giving them heavy doses of palliative care drugs.
A 2007 survey of 854 Victorian Doctors found that 302 had been asked to speed-up a patient’s death through the use of drugs, of which about one-third admitted they had complied with such requests.
This means that 10-15% of Victorian doctors admitted to indirectly engaging in practices akin to euthanasia, and it is suspected that many others have done so but not admitted it.
Euthanasia advocates argue that specific legislation would merely regulate a practice that is already taking place, and relieve the prolonged suffering of many chronically ill people.
In 2013, The Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill was introduced by Cate Faehrmann of the Greens into the NSW parliament. The Bill proposed to legalise euthanasia in our state, subject to a range of rigorous checks and balances.
However, it was rejected by the NSW Upper House by 23 votes to 13. No Coalition MPs voted in favour of the Bill, despite a poll suggesting that 69% of NSW Coalition voters are in favour of euthanasia, as are 72% of the state’s voters in total.
Euthanasia advocates are hopeful that our state will follow in Victoria’s footsteps, and move towards passing legislation that – with the appropriate checks and balances – would help alleviate the suffering of those who are in the final stages of their lives.