ActivePaper Archive ‘People dying during the process’: Push to free up euthanasia laws - The Age, 6/18/2023

‘People dying during the process’: Push to free up euthanasia laws

Once a national leader with its ‘‘groundbreaking’’ voluntary assisted dying legislation, Victoria is now trailing all other Australian states, euthanasia advocates say.

Tomorrow will mark the start of the fifth year of Victoria’s euthanasia laws. Although the state government promised to review the past four years of the legislation before mid-2024, the terms of reference of the review are yet to be released, casting doubt on whether any major reform of the laws will be possible.

In a submission to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board, seen by this masthead, Dying with Dignity has voiced concerns that the state’s laws are now among the most conservative in the country, as other states and territories moved ahead with newer legislation, removing clauses similar to those in place in Victoria which the group deemed ‘‘unnecessarily restrictive, onerous and [which] only serve to impede the efficacy of the process’’. The board oversees operation of the legislation.

‘‘Victoria, despite being the first state to pass voluntary assisted dying legislation, now needs to improve its legislation, by introducing changes that will at the very least place it on par with other legislation around Australia,’’ the submission said.

Dying with Dignity Victorian vice president Jane Morris said the organisation’s members were pushing for the removal of several intended safeguards, including a gag clause making it illegal for physicians to initiate conversations about voluntary euthanasia with dying patients.

They are also pushing for a requirement that stipulates a person must have six to 12 months to live to be reviewed and possibly expanded in line with other states like Queensland, amid concerns some Victorians are being locked out of the laws despite suffering intolerably after being given a terminal diagnosis.

‘‘There are people dying during the process because it’s just so arduous,’’ Morris said.

Morris said it was imperative that those with first-hand experience with the operation of the euthanasia laws, including doctors, patients and families, were given a say in how the legislation could be improved.

Among the most contentious and difficult challenges facing the state government’s proposed review is a debate which has rapidly gained momentum about whether people with dementia should be included.

Morris said the most frequently asked question of Dying with Dignity groups nationally was: Why do people have to suffer with dementia?

‘‘What we really want to emphasise is that access for dementia sufferers is at the front of mind for Australians,’’ she said.

But others, including aged care specialists David Ames and John Obeid, have warned that issues such as elder abuse must be guarded against. Opponents also argue expanding access to voluntary assisted dying is a distraction from the real issues, including improving the quality of life for people with dementia.

The inclusion of dementia in assisted dying laws is rare globally, but recent reporting in The Age has shown a strong desire for this among many in the community.

Melbourne oncologist Dr Cameron McLaren, who sits on the board of Dying with Dignity, said deficiencies in Victoria’s laws must be addressed in the review.

McLaren wants a residency requirement for the terminally ill to be abolished. The requirement calls for proof that the individual has lived in Victoria for 12 months, but McLaren, who has helped dozens of people lawfully end their lives, argued this safeguard was redundant given almost every state and territory had euthanasia laws in place.

New research published in the Medical Journal of Australia last week investigated the patient experience of seeking an assisted death under Victoria’s laws.

The study, led by Professor Ben White from Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Centre for Health Law Research, found terminally ill Victorians continued to come up against barriers, including challenges in finding trained and willing doctors.

‘‘One of the things that came out loud and clear was people having to go from doctor to doctor,’’ White said. ‘‘One way to deal with this is requiring, as a matter of law or ethics, doctors who don’t want to be involved to at least connect patients to a doctor willing to be involved.’’

The government was contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline.