STATES ACCUSED OF DEATH CREEP OVER VOLUNTARY EUTHANASIA

Doctors, church leaders and MPs across the political divide have sounded the alarm on the “creeping” expansion of voluntary euthanasia, warning that key safeguards in the benchmark Victorian law have been stripped out of proposed legislation in other states.  “There is serious concern about this slippage,” the chair of the Australian Medical Association’s ethics and medico legal committee, Chris Moye, said, voicing concerns about the West Australian legislation, while further changes are being proposed in Queensland.  Dr Moye warned that protections in the Victorian law had been cut from the WA bill, which also allows doctors to raise a discussion of euthanasia.

“A lot of this change was happening even before the Victorian law, which is only two months old, has actually been tested,” Dr Moye said.  “At this point, we haven’t seen how assisted dying works in Victoria and yet the slippage is happening across these various jurisdictions.  I think there are two reasons: people were always going to be looking at the Victorian law and the tendency always is to relax legislation.”  The rollout of doctor assisted dying legislation in Western Australia, where there is emotive debate on the government sponsored bill, has also been criticised by the former primate of the Anglican Church and Archbishop of Brisbane, Phillip Aspinall.

And Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Mark Coleridge said the “death creep” of further law reform in Queensland could undermine public trust in doctors.  Victoria is the first state after three decades of failed attempts to bring in legalised euthanasia.  Under the reform, backed by the Labor government as “minimalist”, eligibility is restricted to dying adults assessed as having fewer than six months to live or a year in the case of sufferers of a neurodegenerative disease.  They must be experiencing intolerable levels of pain and suffering and have been resident in Victoria for 12 months before making the first formal request to die.

Doctors are not allowed to raise the option of assisted death with eligible patients.  The proposed WA law reverses this, allowing doctors to instigate a discussion on the subject.  The Victorian requirement for one of the two doctors assessing a patient’s eligibility to be a specialist is waived, as is the need for a government permit to allow the lethal medication to be dispensed.  While the default position in Victoria is for the patient to swallow the dose without medical supervision, there is more scope to request the involvement of a doctor under the WA legislation.  If the practitioner has a conscientious objection, the patient must still be provided with general information on assisted dying.

In Victoria, the doctor has 7 days to decline and is under no legal obligation to refer on anyone asking to die.  A draft bill circulated in Queensland by two former members of the state’s law reform commission, Ben White and Lindy Willmott of Queensland University of Technology, scraps the time requirement on life expectancy.  Whilst the Victorian stipulation that the patient must be within six or 12 months of dying, the White-Willmott threshold is “enduring and intolerable suffering”, predicated on the patient’s prognosis being terminal and their illness advanced.  “We could not find a justification to impose an arbitrary time limit,” Professor White said.

The Queensland Government has formed a parliamentary inquiry into voluntary assisted dying in Queensland.  If the Labor government follows the approach it took to abortion law reform last year, the Queensland Law Reform Commission will be involved in framing right-to-die legislation.  Dr Aspinall said the White-Willmott model was designed to extend access to those who didn’t qualify for voluntary assisted dying under the Victorian law and WA legislation, covering people with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and motor neurone disease.  “These factors might be taken as evidence of the potential existence of a slippery slope here in this country,” he warned.

Archbishop Coleridge said he was troubled that voluntary assisted dying law reform was progressing in WA so quickly: “There is a kind of creep, a death creep.”  The WA legislation passed the state’s legislative assembly by a vote of 45-11, but the numbers are tight in the upper house.  Of the 39 MLAs who spoke in the debate in the lower chamber, most backed voluntary assisted dying, albeit it with some reservation.  One of the few to oppose voluntary assisted dying on the Labor side was Mines Minister Bill Johnston.  “It is my judgment that this bill is not suitable to be supported and I will vote against it,” he said.

Liberal Treasury spokesman Dean Nalder said he was fearful that those dying would see it as more “convenient” to end their life rather than enbrace palliative care.  Several members of the state’s upper house have also flagged concerns about features of the bill.  The ability of doctors to raise the option of euthanasia with patients, barred under Victoria’s assisted dying legislation, is shaping as the key sticking point in the Upper House debate. There is also considerable pushback from senior indigenous leaders, with senator Pat Dodson warning that “fears and suspicions of ‘white¬fella’ medicine will only increase” if the bill is passed.

Source:  Compiled by APN from media reports

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