DYING DESERVE JUSTICE
These laws have proper safeguards and must pass
In coming weeks, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill will be debated in the NSW parliament. It proposes to make medically assisted death an option available to the terminally ill facing unrelievable suffering, subject to strict safeguards.
Opinion polls show more than 70 per cent of Australians believe we should have this choice. Yet our members of parliament have been unwilling to reflect these values through the passage of appropriate laws.
Since 1993 there have been more than 30 attempts to legalise assisted dying in the various state parliaments. None has succeeded. By voting down these bills, our MPs are acting against the wishes of the majority of Australians. They also are turning their backs on the small number of terminally ill people whose suffering cannot be adequately relieved. Why is this happening?
A vocal minority that opposes assisted dying laws, predominantly on religious grounds, has been successful in obstructing every attempt to legislate. It has run effective scare campaigns, warning of “unintended consequences”, a “slippery slope” and “doctors killing patients”.
These campaigners argue that palliative care can already prevent all suffering, and passing laws to allow assisted dying would result in the diminution of its funding. This is not supported by the evidence.
Assisted dying laws have been in place for decades in many places, including five European countries, six US states and Canada. Victorian upper house MPs will decide the fate of similar Bill this week.
The catastrophic outcomes predicted by religious opponents have never eventuated, indeed the laws work safely and have strong public support.
The bill being proposed in NSW is very similar to that of the US state of Oregon, which has been operating for more than 20 years.
Under a regimen of strict safeguards —including close monitoring of every request — there have been no reported cases of abuse and no widening of the initial limited scope of the law.
Last year, 133 people in Oregon ended their lives using medication prescribed under the Death with Dignity Act, comprising less than 0.5 per cent of all deaths in that state.
More than 80 per cent of those people were older than 65, and most had advanced cancer (79 per cent) and motor neurone disease (7 per cent). Nine in 10 were enrolled in palliative care and, unlike in Australia, the vast majority (90 per cent) died at home.
Funding of palliative care increased significantly following the passage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.
The quality of palliative care in Oregon, Washington and Vermont is rated among the best in the US, and all have such legislation in place.
In NSW, the quality of palliative care is among the world’s best. However, even Palliative Care Australia acknowledges that for a significant minority of patients, pain and suffering cannot be relieved, despite optimal care for them.
We believe, as many countries around the world have shown, that it is possible to produce a law with adequate safeguards.
This is an issue that transcends party politics, and we urge our political leaders to show courage and leadership on this issue. Terminally ill Australians who are suffering deserve the compassion and protection of a robust law with strict safeguards. So, too, do all Australians, who may one day want this option. Dick Warburton is a former chairman of Caltex. Jerry Ellis is a former chairman of BHP Billiton. Clive Austin is a former chairman of the Royal Rehabilitation Centre, Sydney.