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Not a simple matter of life or death

Euthanasia or dying with dignity – there are many euphemisms for the termination of a human life before nature runs its course, the latest being the rather more socially palatable and acceptable voluntary assisted dying (VAD).

It is the quintessential topic to cause a raging stoush of conflicting views and opinions over an average dinner party or suburban barbecue, and even more divisive among the wider populous to reach a relative consensus on laws to ensure an individual’s right to opt to shorten their own life rather than suffer the pains and unimaginable indignities a slow and guaranteed death entails.

There are myriad reasons to consider when deciding whether you are for or against proposed legislation – the list is as long and as personal as many life decisions – but from a legal perspective the issues are even more complex.

In Victoria, which enacted VAD laws in 2017, they laid out the issues worthy of consideration quite succinctly. The Victorian Government – in a bid to engage and inform its community – published an information sheet that read:
End of life issues can be distressing and difficult for many people. There is also a range of views in the community about death and dying and how to improve the experience of people at the end of their lives.

For these reasons, a parliamentary committee considered issues about palliative care, advance care planning and voluntary assisted dying. There was a lot of consultation with people in the community as well as medical bodies, consumer and carer groups, disability advocacy groups, legal organisations, mental health providers and health administrators.

The committee recommended that voluntary assisted dying should be made law. An expert panel then consulted on what the law should look like before a Bill was brought into the parliament. Across this time, many people said they wanted genuine choices at the end of life. They wanted to make decisions about the treatment and care they needed. They also wanted to choose where they die. Some people also wanted to decide the timing and manner of their death.

All laws regarding assisted death in Australia are the sole domain of the states, not the Federal Government. It was made legal in Victoria via the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act (2017) which did not come into effect until 19 June this year (2019).

However, the nation’s first euthanasia laws were enacted as a result of the leadership and tenacity of the Northern Territory’s first Chief Minister, Marshall Perron – making assisted dying legal for a period in 1996-97 until the Federal Government removed the territories’ right to legislate on assisted death.

In Australia, the Federal Government retains the power to overturn laws passed by territories (all 10 of them, including the ACT, Northern Territory, Jervis Bay, Norfolk Island and Christmas Island), whereas states have the right to rule independently on a variety of issues, including healthcare.

While assisted dying has become the cause celebre for the past several decades, governments in Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales have made concerted efforts to consider whether these rights should be enshrined in law but have so far failed to pass legislation in support of it.

With the exception of Victoria, the only current rights extended to Australians to make a choice to end their life prematurely are to opt out of receiving treatment for terminal illnesses, sign or make a do-not-resuscitate order, or request life support be withdrawn.

During the past year, Queensland Law Society’s legal policy team, alongside three of its policy committees, has engaged with the profession, parliamentary committees and a range of academics and delegates to discuss perspectives and issues related to any potential changes to Queensland laws regarding voluntary assisted dying.

This month (15 October, 2019) the Society will host a Voluntary Assisted Dying: Perspectives and Issues forum to discuss myriad topics to galvanise and inform the legal profession in preparation for a submission to the Queensland parliamentary inquiry into aged care, end-of-life and palliative care, and voluntary assisted dying.

In this edition of Proctor we hear from leaders with varying views and insights into the topic – including former Northern Territory Chief Minister and VAD advocate Marshall Perron, and prominent and highly respected Catholic priest Frank Brennan.

This article appeared on pages 18-19 of the October 2019 edition of Proctor.

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