Next Tuesday, voluntary assisted dying legislation will undergo a second reading by independent Upper House member Mike Gaffney in Tasmanian Parliament.
- Independent Legislative Councillor Mike Gaffney’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill will undergo a second reading very early next month.
- Doctors will be allowed to refuse the treatment if they philosophically disagree with the practice.
- The peak body for aging Australians has given the bill the tick of approval, but doctors and lobby groups still have concerns.
It is the fourth time a bill of this kind will be debated in Tasmania. Most recently, in 2017, an attempt to introduce voluntary euthanasia laws was defeated with eight MPs voting for and 16 voting against the bill.
So how will this time be different? And how will these laws differ to laws already in place in other jurisdictions?
How will the legislation work?
According to Mr Gaffney, the journey begins when a candidate goes to their GP and wants to explore their treatment options.
The GP would then provide that person with information on all of their options, including palliative care, home care, and voluntary assisted dying.
If that person requests voluntary assisted dying, their GP must go through all the information will them and decide whether or not they are eligible.
Those eligible must be over 18, be a Tasmanian resident, have decision-making capacity, be acting voluntarily, and have a relevant medical condition.
That medical condition can be a disease, illness, or injury. It must be advanced, incurable, irreversible and expected to cause death.
If they’re eligible, the person must wait 2 days to think further about whether it’s something they wanted to pursue.
They then must pass the same eligibility test a second time.
If they pass, the doctor then needs a second opinion from another doctor. If that doctor denies the patient’s eligibility, they can seek a second option, and if two say no, the process ends.
But if that other GP confirms the patient’s eligibility, that patient can then apply for the medication that will end their life.
Mr Gaffney said the patient is given the opportunity to withdraw from the process at any time.
How is it different from previous legislation that has been tabled?
Mr Gaffney argues it is a lot more detailed.
When the first Dying with Dignity bill made its way to Tasmanian parliament in 2009, it was 19 pages long.
Mr Gaffney voted against it.
Mr Gaffney’s bill is 122 pages long. He travelled overseas to consult with people in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada where similar laws had been in effect for a longer period of time.
“It was 15 days and I went through five countries and 14, 15 meetings with different people so it was extensive travel and that was invaluable,” he said.
Can a doctor refuse to administer the treatment?
Yes. A doctor can refuse to assist someone with seeking voluntary assisted dying if they disagree philosophically with their choice, if they’re not adequately trained, or if they will be travelling and therefore unable to see the patient through to the end of the process, for example.
What do doctors think?
The Tasmanian branch of the Australian Medical Association is worried about doctors’ involvement in the process.
“We don’t support physician-assisted suicide, which is basically what it is,” AMA Tasmania President Helen McArdle said.
Mike Gaffney acknowledged there would be doctors that would not want to be involved, and that is OK.
“Doctors that don’t think that should happen, that’s fine but the doctors that do, think they should have the right to,” Mr Gaffney said.
He also argued it would be the patient making a decision to end their own life, not the doctor.
“The doctors are not making the decisions here, the doctors are determining whether the person is eligible,” he said.
He expected doctors’ support for the legislation would grow as people become more comfortable with it.
What are the other concerns?
The legislation has the backing of the Council of the Aging, which believes the bill has adequate safeguards in place to prevent wrongful deaths.
“It’s not an immediate decision that someone can take, there are steps in the process to re-check whether this is the right thing for them,” CEO Sue Leitch said.
“This is only part of the equation of course — we need a good palliative care system, we need good health measures in place and we need people to be clear with their families what their choices are,” she said.
But not everyone agrees.
A lobby group that has been set up to oppose the legislation, Live & Die Well, is worried there are not enough safeguards in the legislation to determine whether someone is too impaired to give consent.
“The system doesn’t really allow for those to be picked up and they should be protected rather than taken down the path towards assisted suicide,” spokesman Ben Smith said.
He said palliative care needs to be seen as a more legitimate option and resources should be allocated accordingly.
“If we improve palliative care, that’s a much easier fix than to actually completely re-engineer the health system to include this sort of option,” Mr Smith said.