Australia: a nation ready for end-of-life choices
Australia is at a tipping point when it comes to end-of-life choices and euthanasia laws.
Repeated opinion polls reveal that more than 70%, and up to 90%, of Australians support voluntary assisted dying (VAD) in situations where a person is in the final stages of an untreatable or terminal illness and is experiencing suffering that cannot be relieved. Despite this, only three states have passed legislation to provide their constituents with this end-of-life choice: Victoria, Western Australia and, most recently, Tasmania. So, what is happening in the country’s remaining states and territories?
VAD laws passed in three Australian states
Go Gentle Australia — a health promotion charity established in 2016 by Andrew Denton — says that, currently, Victoria is the only state in Australia where adults in the end stage of a terminal illness and suffering intolerably can legally seek medical assistance to end their lives.
Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act, passed by the Victorian parliament in 2017, is approaching its second year of operation, with the most recent report from the independent Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board confirming that the law is operating safely, compassionately and as intended.
Western Australia passed VAD laws in December 2019 and is on track to offer legal assisted dying services on 1 July 2021 following an 18-month implementation period. This year, Tasmania became the third state to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill, with the law’s eligibility criteria echoing that of the other states. Australian applicants must be terminally ill, mentally competent adults in the final six months of life (or 12 months for neurodegenerative disorders, such as motor neurone disease). They must also have been resident in Tasmania for the 12 months preceding their application.
What’s happening elsewhere?
Queensland, South Australia and NSW are at varying stages of debating legal assisted dying. South Australia has begun debate in the Upper House; NSW Independent MP Alex Greenwich has told parliament he will have a draft Bill ready by July to be introduced in September; and Queensland’s draft Bill, now before the Law Reform Commission, is due to be released by mid-year.
What about the territories?
Many Australians may be unaware of the Northern Territory’s (NT’s) euthanasia law history. In 1995 the NT Parliament became the first in the world to legalise voluntary euthanasia; however, only two years later, the federal government overturned the law, passing a Bill that banned the ACT and NT from even debating the issue.
The NT and ACT Governments are calling on the Australian Government to restore their right to debate voluntary assisted dying laws — they want Liberal MP Kevin Andrews’ 1996 Bill banning both territories from passing legislation on assisted dying to be overturned, saying it treats Australians living in the Territories as second-class citizens and conflicts with Australia’s human rights obligations.
Supporting the cause
Despite opinion polls showing the Australian population supports assisted dying, there is still some way to go in terms of removing its perceived stigma. Go Gentle Australia’s Steve Offner explained that even in Victoria, where assisted dying is a legal choice, there is a reluctance to talk about it.
Part of the reluctance is the perceived conflict between assisted dying and palliative care. While palliative care maintains that medical assistance to die is not a part of its discipline, statistics from Victoria show that around nine out of 10 patients who elect VAD are also receiving palliative care.
“We need to overcome this reluctance to talk about all end-of-life choices. It is not an either/or debate between VAD and palliative care. We need both,” Offner said.
Voluntary assisted dying is now part of an international conversation. More than 200 million people are living in jurisdictions where laws have been passed — the most recent countries to pass laws are Spain and New Zealand.
“With a number of countries and three more Australian states debating assisted dying laws this year, 2021 is shaping up as a watershed year,” he added.
Go Gentle Australia is running a national campaign to build Australia’s biggest Record of Support for VAD laws, aiming to collect names to represent the nation’s support for the cause. To register support, visit www.gogentleaustralia.org.au.
Another initiative is Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying Choice (HPAD Choice). Supporters from health backgrounds can add their names to a national list of more than 1200 practising, retired and student healthcare professionals that support mentally competent adults having the right to choose an assisted death, subject to strict safeguards.
In NSW, Dying with Dignity is running a petition calling on the major parties to work together to introduce an assisted dying Bill to the NSW parliament aimed at relieving the suffering of terminally ill people experiencing unbearable suffering.
The Territories Rights petition calls for the NT and ACT to be given back the right to consider VAD legislation for themselves. Sign the petition here.
To learn more about the stories, moral arguments and individuals behind the campaign for assisted dying laws, listen to Andrew Denton’s podcast, Better off Dead, which has recently launched its second series focusing on the first year of Victoria’s law.
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