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.

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