As Victoria’s Upper House begins to debate the Assisted Dying bill passed by Lower House MPs, Australia21 is calling on those who will vote to set aside emotion and examine the evidence supporting change.
The Government leader in the Legislative Council, Gavin Jennings, gave his second reading speech for the bill on Tuesday afternoon.
“Far too many Victorians have suffered too much and for too long at the end of their lives,” he told parliament.
“Improving policy and community awareness about the end of life, and death, are essential if we are to improve Victorians’ choices about how and where they experience both.”
Australia21 has sent all 40 members of the State’s Legislative Council a report we prepared from the proceedings of a multidisciplinary examination involving experts with diverse views on the issue, The right to choose an assisted death: Time for legislation?
Respectful, constructive dialogue
In a constructive dialogue between people supporting and opposed to law reform, 27 ethicists, theologians, palliative care workers, doctors, nurses, lawyers and patients, as well as former politicians, contributed to the Roundtable discussion.
It was chaired by one of the founders of Australia21, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas AO, himself a doctor of 40 years and the Foundation Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University.
Participants were invited to respond to a background paper How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide? prepared by two senior legal academics from the Queensland University of Technology, Professors Ben White and Lindy Willmott.
The Roundtable report, published in 2013, noted that a large body of international evidence has accrued from a number of jurisdictions that have successfully legislated to support assisted dying and/or voluntary euthanasia.
Australia21 made three recommendations:
State governments should develop legislation now to permit and regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide in defined and limited circumstances;
The Federal Parliament should restore powers that were withdrawn from the Territories so these parliaments may do the same; and
Until the above happens, each Member of Parliament should consider exercising his or her right to introduce a private member’s bill on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The report still stands as a useful resource for anyone unclear about this issue.
Dying with dignity
So Australia21 welcomes Victoria’s current leadership.
“At last, an Australian lower house has agreed to a bill that could provide comfort to millions of Australians who would like the option of dying with dignity when their time comes,” said Bob Douglas.
It’s time for the Upper House to follow suit.
The bill being considered by the State includes a range of safeguards. Patients would have to make three requests and see specially trained doctors, and coercing someone to seek a medically assisted death would become a crime.
But, as reported by the ABC, the vote in the Legislative Council is expected to be very tight, despite the bill passing in the Lower House with a vote of 47 to 37.
Australia21 believes the legal framework that operates at the end of life in Australia needs to be reformed, for many reasons.
Assisted dying and voluntary euthanasia already occur in Australia, in part because palliative care cannot relieve physical and psychological pain and suffering in all cases. In this respect, the law is deficient.
The law is also unfair because it doesn’t treat people equally. Some people can be helped to die on their own terms as a result of their knowledge or connections, while some are able to hasten their death by the refusal of life-sustaining treatment. But others do not have access to the means to end their life.
A very substantial majority of Australians have repeatedly expressed in public opinion polls their desire for law reform on these matters. Many are concerned at what they see is happening to their loved ones as they reach the end of their lives without the confidence that they will be able to exercise choice in relation to assisted dying.
The most consistent reason advanced not to change the law is the need to protect highly dependent people and those with disabilities people from abuse, who may be pressured into agreeing to an assisted death. But a large body of experience in a number of international jurisdictions shows that appropriate safeguards can be implemented to protect vulnerable people.
International evidence reveals that assisted dying meets a real need among a small minority of people at the end of their lives. It also provides reassurance to people with terminal and incurable disease that they will not be left to suffer the indignities and discomfort of a difficult death.
Australia is an increasingly secular society. Strong opposition to assisted death by religious groups that is based on their belief in divine sanctity of all human life is not a justification for denying choice for those who do not share that belief.
It is now time for Australian legislators to respond to this concern and this experience by legislating to enhance the quality of death for those Australians who seek assisted dying.