The latest Bill to achieve the right to choose your own life’s end is about to be debated in an Australian parliament. Cassy O’Connor explains why she is a co-sponsor.
End of life Bill resurrected
By Cassy O’Connor*
Politicians are often out of step with the wishes of their communities and perhaps the best recent example of this in Tasmania is on the question of dying with dignity.
In two polls in 2012 and 2013, 80% of Tasmanian and national respondents supported legislative reform to allow doctor-provided assisted dying, on a patient’s informed request, when that patient is in agonising, unrelievable suffering with no chance of recovery.
The law in Tasmania and around the nation forces terrible choices on people. It demands intolerable suffering be prolonged. It criminalises compassionate assistance from medical professionals and loved ones. It has driven people to suicide or starve. It takes our control over our bodies and our right to self determination.
Who is any person or any government to tell a person suffering such pain and distress they cannot choose to die with dignity? Yet, that is exactly what a majority of Tasmanian MPs have done on two occasions.
When then-Greens leader Nick McKim introduced the state’s first voluntary assisted dying legislation in 2009, it was sent to a parliamentary committee to examine. I was a member. We heard harrowing stories of people dying long, excruciating deaths, of family members driven by love to end the suffering and risk murder or manslaughter charges. We heard compelling evidence some doctors, motivated by compassion, administer lethal doses of palliative medicine to provide permanent relief from suffering. We heard the law does not protect these doctors who, under the Criminal Code, face potential murder charges.
When the 2009 Bill came on for debate in the Lower House, four Greens MPs with three Labor MPs, including then minister Lara Giddings, voted for dying with dignity.
The majority of Labor MPs along with every Liberal MP voted against. It was deeply frustrating to sit and hear facts misrepresented, to listen to discredited “slippery slope” arguments, but to hear little said of suffering experienced by those for whom palliative care can provide no salve.
Who is any person or any government to tell a person suffering such pain and distress they cannot choose to die with dignity?
We cannot pretend, for all the enormous good it can do, palliative medicine has all the answers for people enduring intolerable pain and suffering. Any experienced medical professional will tell you it does not. Opponents of voluntary assisted dying, primarily arguing on religious grounds, will say it does. In their public arguments, they too readily gloss over the plight of these people in pain.
When then premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim tabled robust and rigorously consulted legislation to provide for dying with dignity in 2013, 11 of the 25 MHAs voted for reform. Despite the fact it was a conscience debate, the then Liberal opposition voted as a bloc to uphold the status quo and the vote was lost.
Lara and I hope this time it will be different. We are co-sponsoring and will table the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2015 in this parliamentary session for debate this year. The Bill is principally the same legislation that was widely consulted and drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel in the last term of government, but with improvements.
We are encouraged by developments in Canada, where last year the Supreme Court ruled that legal prohibitions on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide violated the right to life, liberty and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Canadian Medical Association moved to establish ethical legal principles to underpin a safe, legal, rights-based framework for dying with dignity.
These principles are reflected in the 2013 Tasmanian dying with dignity legislation and are embedded in the Bill we will debate. We hope the Australian Medical Association engages with Canadian counterparts to progress this reform.
In the lead-up to the debate, we expect another campaign to frighten wavering MPs into opposing the legislation. The “slippery slope” argument will be put, as will the claim that allowing the legal right to die with dignity will expose the vulnerable to risk. In each jurisdiction where voluntary assisted dying was legalised, these arguments were put and discredited.
Our Bill enables an adult diagnosed with an incurable medical condition that would result in death to make an informed request to their doctor for assisted dying medication. There are cooling-off periods, a second medical opinion is sought, counselling offered, and every step of the way the patient is in control.
There is no scope in our Bill for a person or medico to be forced to take part in voluntary assisted dying.
The experience of other jurisdictions with these laws tells us only a handful of Tasmanians a year would seek this option. For the rest of us who support this reform, the knowledge we have the right to exit with dignity, brings its own quiet relief.
Cassy O’Connor is leader of the Tasmanian Greens. This article appeared first as an opinion piece in The Mercury, Hobart.