Assisted dying debate begins

Funeral lily

Debate has begun in Victoria’s Parliament about the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Under the proposed legislation, pharmacists would dispense medication in a “locked box” to patients with life-limiting illness who have self-initiated the process.

The Bill, prepared by Victoria’s Minister for Health Jill Hennessy and Attorney-General Martin Pakula, follows an extensive consultation process and was described by Ministerial Advisory Panel on Voluntary Assisted Dying chair Dr Brian Owler as “conservative”.

The panel recommended 68 safeguards to protect individuals and the community.

The framework is strictly voluntary and self-administered, with doctor administration only available to those who cannot physically administer or digest the medication themselves.

Should the Bill pass Parliament, an 18-month period will elapse before access to voluntary assisted dying will lapse, in order to allow for an implementation process.

“Victorians have engaged with the formal structures, they engaged on social media, online, on the airwaves and in our newspaper comment sections,” Ms Hennessy says.

“They have made it clear they support this legislation and that they want the parliament to vote on this.

“This week’s debate will deal with the sad reality that Victorians are dying in lonely and violent circumstances –taking their own lives. I hope my Parliamentary colleagues will help me put an end to that.”

As predicted by the Minister and colleagues, an emotional debate began in Parliament.

Brian Paynter, Liberal member for Bass, outlined his support for the bill and explained that “a request to access voluntary assisted dying must be made three times, once in writing, over the course of 10 or more days.

“Witnessing of a written request cannot be done by someone who will benefit from the person’s death. The 10-plus-day requirement can be reduced in exceptional circumstances where the person is likely to die within that time. Importantly, a person may withdraw from the process of accessing voluntary assisted dying at any time or in fact choose to never take the medication.

“Two independent doctors must be satisfied that the person qualifies for voluntary assisted dying and that the request is voluntary, informed and enduring. The two independent doctors must be fellows of a specialist medical college and have completed voluntary assisted dying training. At least one doctor must have expertise in the person’s disease or illness.

“A person must keep their voluntary assisted dying medication, which they have sourced from a pharmacy, in a locked box. A person must nominate a contact person who is tasked with returning the voluntary assisted dying medication to the pharmacist if the terminally ill person dies without consuming it or if there is any remaining. This must occur within a month of the death.”

Mr Paynter told of the suffering of a Raymond Godbold, a palliative care nurse with terminal gastroesophageal cancer, who illegally accessed a drug to end his life but was unable to take it due to his illness. He said that in memory of Ray, he would vote in favour of the Bill.

But Tim Smith, Liberal member for Kew, said the proposed legislation was “fundamentally contrary to the Judaeo-Christian norms of decency, civility and, frankly, modernity” and expressed concern about the “locked box” pharmacists would provide.

“The very point at which a person can kill themselves under this piece of legislation is the point at which they go to the pharmacy and receive an unknown substance in a locked box,” he said.

“I have grave concerns because I do not know what that substance is. Can someone tell me what these three substances are?

“I am concerned about the mixing of these unknown substances, this locked box scenario — the taking home of the locked box, the ingestion of these substances — and about whether or not these substances will actually work when they are ingested.

“Medicines work in different ways for different people, and honourable members will know that these substances untried in the first instance could prove not to be fatal, which would be traumatic to say the least.”

The Nationals’ Peter Walsh, member for Murray Plains, had similar concerns.

“One of the articles I read said that a pharmacist will mix up a concoction of different drugs that people will be able to take to end their life.

“They will most likely have to take another medication first to make sure they do not vomit up this medication.

“I do not think that is the process that most people have in mind when they are thinking about how you can have a peaceful end to your life.”

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