Dying with dignity

Lynda Voltz is a NSW Labor member of the Legislative Council

Over the last few decades there has been a mind shift in parliaments around the world towards legislation regarding voluntary assisted dying. This shift has also been reflected in Australian public opinion where, over the last quarter of a century, Australians have overwhelmingly supported assisted dying in opinion polls. Polling consistently demonstrates widespread support across Australia to allow terminally ill patients to voluntarily end their lives with assistance from the medical profession.

There have been many attempts since the passage (and subsequent voiding) of the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 in parliaments across Australia to provide legislative and medical frameworks for the terminally ill to voluntarily end their

lives and all have ultimately failed. Recently we have seen legislation narrowly fail in South Australia, where it had the support of Premier Jay Weatherill, and in Tasmania where it was introduced by Labor’s Lara Giddings alongside the Greens. This is despite
consistently demonstrated widespread support across Australia.

Where legislation has been introduced through a cross party mechanism, reflecting the broad based support across the community for voluntary assisted dying legislation, it has attracted its greatest legislative support. In Victoria, a parliamentary committee on end of life choices has made recommendations that a Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill be supported. This is why a NSW Bill has
been jointly sponsored by Labor, Liberal, National, Green and Independent representatives.

This cross party support will throw up a real challenge for the NSW Labor Party. There is significant support for the draft Bill on the conservative side of politics, particularly within the National Party. Unlike the Marriage Equality Bill introduced in the NSW Legislative Council, there is a real risk that the conservative side of politics may end up presenting as the progressive side on Voluntary Assisted Dying.

It would be great disappointment if the draft legislation to be introduced into the NSW Legislative Council was, like the Marriage Equality Bill, defeated by a single vote. It will be a test for which side represents the progressive side of politics if the Bill attracts as much support or more from the conservative side of politics as opposed to those sitting on the Labor benches.

The draft legislation provides a legislative framework for the rights of terminally ill persons to request and receive assistance to end their lives voluntarily and provides protection for medical persons providing assistance to a patient and sets up safeguards against possible abuse.

At the heart of the Bill lies consent and the patients’ decision making capacity. To be eligible for consideration the patient must be at least 25 years of age and resident in NSW. They must also be suffering from a terminal illness which in reasonable medical judgement is likely to result in the death of the patient within 12 months. In the course of the terminal illness the patient will be
experiencing severe pain, suffering or physical incapacity to an extent unacceptable to the patient. The request by the patient may be rescinded at any time. The patient must be examined by their primary medical practitioner and independently by one other medical practitioner, as well as an examination by a psychiatrist or psychologist. The draft Bill also allows for a review of
requests for assistance to the Supreme Court.

Whilst the Bill only allows for the primary medical practitioner to assist, it also provides that a health care worker, or any other person, is not under any duty to assist in an assisted death. This includes a hospital, nursing home or any nurse. These measures and safeguards are important. They are designed to meet community expectations alongside concerns of the legal and medical professions. This is a narrowly defined Bill that canvasses all the concerns raised in previous debates and across extensive consultation.

Ultimately, this Bill is about providing a choice to those people who wish to take control of the final days, weeks or months of their life. As California Governor Jerry Brown, a pious Catholic and former Attorney General, noted when he signed legislation in 2015 allowing doctor assisted dying into Californian law rather than using his veto, which many expected him to do, “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this Bill and I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Oscar Wilde once quipped that selfishness is not living how you want to live, it is expecting other people to live how you want them to live. In a 21st century modern liberal democracy, there would be few who would argue that the religious views of some should be guiding tool for the legislative requirements of others.

Whilst I appreciate that some of my Parliamentary colleagues may have a personal view on their own religious beliefs, it is important to remember, as Governor Brown did, that those views are not necessarily broadly shared by the people of New South Wales. Placed in the situation of intolerable pain and dying, no-one can say what any person will do whatever their personal belief,
but as politicians, it is not our place to deny them the right to choose.


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  • commented 2017-10-20 20:50:44 +1100
    Dying with dignity. These words are so important to the person dying &those left to treasure the memories.