Everyone has had different exposure to death. Some have seen it up close - a family member, a friend. Some have not, yet, but inevitably will. For some the experience is peaceful and assuring. For some it's awful & traumatic. Talking to my friends, and certainly within my family, I know that at the very least all of us have seen a death scenario where we turn to the person next to us - spouse, parent, child - and say "please don't ever let that happen to me". This is normally when the death is slow, degenerative, painful and generally the result of disease.
While there is a lot of attention in Australia now on the same-sex marriage postal survey, there are two other state-level legislative reforms that will arguably impact far more people. Both New South Wales and Victoria have introduced Bills on assisted dying. Similar to the same-sex marriage issue, despite an overwhelming majority of ordinary Australian's supporting this (73%) and support from a majority of doctors and nurses, it's highly likely that stupid politics - a combinating of ill informed politicians and an active political campaign by the Catholic Church hierarchy - might prevent this change from happening.
What is being proposed in NSW
[Note - I'm writing about the NSW Bill because that's my home state but the Victorian Bill is very similar]
You will probably be surprised by how narrow the legislation is. It is a very conservative Bill, quite different to the voluntary euthanasia legislation that you see in some Scandanavian countries for example.
The Bill establishes a right for certain terminally ill persons to request and receive assistance to end their lives voluntarily. To be eligible to request and receive assistance from a medical practitioner, a patient must:
- Be at least 25 years of age and ordinarily resident in New South Wales,
- Be suffering from a terminal illness which in reasonable medical judgement will result in the death of the patient within 12 months, and
- Be experiencing severe pain, suffering or physical incapacity to an extent deemed unacceptable to the patient.
The patient must be provided information by their primary medical practitioner relating to the medical treatment, including palliative care, counselling and psychiatric support and measures for keeping the patient alive, that might be available to the patient.
In order to receive assistance, eligible patients must be assessed by:
- A primary medical practitioner,
- A secondary medical practitioner (who must be a specialist), and
- An independent qualified psychiatrist or psychologist (to confirm the patient is of sound mind, has decision-making capacity, and is making their decision freely and voluntarily and after due consideration).
Patients may self-administer, or be assisted by their medical practitioners or a nominated person to administer, a lethal substance (as prescribed by regulations) to end their lives, after having gone through the required process outlined in the Bill. This includes a cooling off period of 48 hours elapsing between the completion of the certificate of request and the provision of assistance.
The Bill provides for a right for persons or health care providers to conscientiously object to being involved in the provision of assistance, and no criminal or civil liability will be incurred by protected people who act in good faith who participate in the provision of assistance or refuse to participate in the provision of assistance.
Why I am passionate this
I've been a big supportor of legislation like this long before I was told I have a 50/50 chance of surving my recent cancer diagnosis, but obviously that news has made this much more personal. I hope I don't ever need to use a legal mechanism like this, but I can tell you that knowing it's an option would help quell some of my greatest "worst case scenario" fears.
Conversative politicians and the Catholic Church have a bunch of counter arguments. I don't want to explore all their claims but 'Dying with Dignity NSW' has a great myth buster document here. Most of the arguments center on the risk to vulnerable people. They worry that people will feel compelled to use this law because of their sense of being a burden, or because they are being pushed by family. I think this takes a very dim view of humanity but more importantly it completely ignores the bigger and more urgent problem - the experience of the many people today dying under truly horrific circumstances, or committing suicide themselves to avoid those circumstances.
To be fair, I should mention that not everyone in the Catholic Church is against this change. A 2012 Newspoll survey showed that 88% of Anglicans and 77% of Catholics agreed that a doctor should be allowed to meet a request from a hopelessly ill patient for help to die.
The bill is largely modelled on similar legislation that was introduced in the US state of Oregan over 20 years ago, and more recently adopted in 5 other US states (including California) and Washington DC. The track record of that US legislation proves that many of the scare tactic arguments being used by opponents of change in NSW and VIC are unfounded. What I found most interesting is that in Oregan a very small % of people actually end up taking the lethal drug, even after they get approval and instead die without it, but many found great comfort in knowing the option was available to them.
This is not a sure thing, especially in NSW
I've been horried to see that already the leader of the opposition in NSW, Luke Foley and the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, have said they won't be supporting the bill.
See a reaction to Luke Foley's tweet from a terminally ill woman here.
The legislation has been introduced in both NSW and the VIC. The difference is that in VIC it is a government sponsorered Bill while in NSW it's a cross party working group that have introduced the Bill in the Upper House. The Victorian Parliament will vote on the legislation in October, while the NSW Upper House will 1st vote on it in November. It has to clear the Upper House before moving to Lower House MP's for vote.
What can you do ?
[Note -Again I'm focussing on NSW because it's my home state but if you're in Victoria check out Dying with Dignity Victoria]
- Share far and wide via social media - but please do it in a way encourages the real world actions below.
- Email, or better yet, write an actual letter to the NSW Upper House representatives. The more the better. Personally I'm writing to all and trying to schedule meetings with those who I think are likely to vote against. Here is a contact list for all Upper House MPS. Here is a great letter writing guide.
- Get in touch with your local MP. Write to them (contact details here) or better yet, try and get a meeting to discuss it with them.
- Many MP's are currently surveying their electorates on this issue. If your MP has a survey please be sure to complete it, or if they don't contact them and ask why.
We know for a fact that a vast majority of people want this change. The only reason it won't happen is (a) ill-informed politicians or (b) politicians hi-jacked by interest groups. We need these politicians to know that we are watching and they are going to be held accountable for their votes.
I have a lot of friends in media, business and government. If anyone has special expertise or extra 'leverage' of any kind, please consider bringing it to bear for this very important issue. Get creative. Just please take some kind of action.
The next time a loved one turns to you and says "please don't ever let that happen to me", you might take some comfort in knowing there will actually be a legal mechanism that allows you to do something real.