Dying with Dignity Central Coast (DWDCC) will host a seminar on the Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Bill, with special guest speaker, NSW Greens MLC, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, from 10am to 2pm in Room 3 of the Gosford City Library, Erina Fair, on February 16.
The seminar will cover the state of the Bill in NSW, the reasons why it was not passed in 2017, and ways forward in 2018.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (NSW) is designed to give terminally ill patients suffering irremediably the legal right to request and receive assistance to die, and according to the DWDCC’s Ms Joy Shannon, community support for VAD has been on the rise across the Coast and NSW for years, but a small yet powerful contingent of wealthy and religious stakeholders have continued to halt the Bill.
“The major opposition to legalising medically assisted dying comes traditionally from religious bodies, which are often well financed,” Ms Shannon said.
“Despite decreasing membership, these still retain great influence in the political world.
“Supporting this influence is the present so-called ‘conscience’ vote in State and Federal Parliaments, more often than not based on the individual member’s personal views or their party’s policy, rather than those of the electorate.
“In the VAD Bill which failed by one vote in December 2017, the Liberals voted overwhelming against, despite having been given a ‘conscience’ vote by their party.
“Labour was equally split, while the Nationals and the Greens voted overwhelmingly for the Bill.”
According to Ms Shannon, the key stakeholders and policy makers in NSW’s VAD Bill are the NSW Parliamentary Working Group on Assisted Dying, established by Nationals MLC, Mr Trevor Khan, and consisting of himself, Ms Lynda Voltz MLC (Labor), Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC (Greens), Mr Lee Evans MLA (Liberal) and Mr Alex Greenwich MP.
“It was felt that being comprised of members from all four major parties would give the bill a better chance of success than previous bills prepared by a single party,” Ms Shannon said.
Ms Shannon and the rest of DWDCC said that at the core of the matter was an individual’s right to end their suffering.
“Patients facing a terrible death should be legally able to request and receive assistance to die.
“Palliative care can and does relieve the pain of many of those dying, but palliative care proponents themselves agree that approximately 5 per cent of deaths cannot be relieved and the sufferer dies in agony.
“The close relatives of those dying also suffer and are often haunted for the rest of their lives by such a death,” she said.
“Nor is pain always the principal reason why a person wants to die.
“The disease he/she is suffering sometimes destroys the quality of life so much that the sufferer wants desperately to stop living.
“It is unacceptable that in this day and age the dying should be forced to suffer unnecessarily in such a way.
“For religious and other reasons, the idea of assisting a human being to die, particularly with government concurrence, is abhorrent to some.
“Others fear that the elderly and infirm might be subject to abuse.
“However, the bill had been widely circulated in draft form and the comments received taken into careful consideration in its final drafting.
“Strict safeguards were written into the bill protecting societal interests such as religious belief, the need to protect the vulnerable from exploitation, mistake or duress, or the reluctance of some physicians to be involved.
“One provision specifically stated that no physician could be penalised for refusing to take part in VAD,” Ms Shannon continued.
“Being sponsored by a group of cross party politicians should have reduced the internecine disputes normal when voting is in process.
“It would give Australians an essential human right which they lack at present.
“Unlike most similar liberal democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights to protect human rights in a single document, it is the only democratic nation in the world without a national charter or bill of rights.
“As a result, our Constitution contains few protections for what we now call human rights, in particular a citizen’s right to assisted suicide.
“This attitude is bolstered by UN acceptance that governments may, at wish, proscribe assisted suicide.
“Australia however goes further, rather than accepting assisted suicide, anyone assisting in a suicide is punishable stringently by law for doing so.
“Exemption from this law is granted only when the attending physician is able to establish that the drug was intended to relieve suffering not to hasten death, double-effect or terminal coma.
“In shaming contrast, in February 2015, the Canadian High Court ruled unanimously that Canadian legislation prohibiting assisted suicide was invalid, being a violation of the right to life, liberty and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“This right is also protected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Australia has adopted,” Ms Shannon said.
Speaking on why she thought the bill had been blocked Ms Shannon said that whilst there were some legitimate concerns regarding VAD, the system of safeguards outlined in the bill outweighed any theoretical or speculative fears regarding the prohibition of VAD.
“Opponents, often religious, talk constantly of the danger of abuse, particularly of elderly persons, yet a few minutes reading of any daily newspaper will produce evidence that much abuse already exists,” Ms Shannon said.
“There is also much talk of the infamous slippery slope, once the law is instituted it will quickly be extended and its conditions loosened.
“Many politicians misunderstand and are misusing the term ‘conscience’ vote.
“Every person accepting election to government accepts at the same time three distinct responsibilities: to their party, to the electorate who voted them into place and to their own conscience.
“The conscience vote declared by a party means only that the politician is free from the normally accepted duty of voting in accordance with his party’s directions.
“Two other responsibilities remain, to vote in accordance with their electorate’s wishes and in accordance with their own personal conscience.
“If he/she is unable, by reason of that conscience, to vote in accordance with their electorate’s wishes, then they should refrain from voting,” Ms Shannon said.
“VAD already happens frequently in Australia in different guises, including double effect and terminal coma, and is unregulated.
“In Victoria, the government examined the evidence, to the point of travelling to jurisdictions practising VAD.
“In NSW, some politicians did not even read the Bill, and were quite open about that.
“Others stated that they had never been approached by constituents on the subject of VAD.
“In fairness, it must be stated that some of the latter said they were planning visits to their constituencies to discuss the subject,” Ms Shannon concluded.
Interview, Jan 29
Joy Shannon, Dying With Dignity Central Coast
Dilon Luke, Journalist