Premier Andrews needs wider advice on assisted dying

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The Victorian Premier doesn't support assisted dying law reform - at this stage.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews reports that he doesn’t support voluntary euthanasia “at this stage” (The Age, 21 Jun 2015), and that his objections are not based on his Catholic faith. I think it is fair to take him at his word given his historical record in facilitating conversation and reform around values-based issues such as abortion. But his current thinking on assisted dying is indefensible as I explain.

We know from repeated Newspoll Australia studies that amongst the millions of Victorians who want the State to respect their wish to make their own choices at the end of life, three out of four Australian Catholics are in favour of legalised assisted dying—at odds with the ‘traditional’ Catholic stance. Mr Andrews, like a majority of Catholic Australians, may simply not agree with the Vatican line on assisted dying choice, as they don't on a range of matters.

Mr Andrews says that his current objections instead revolve around ‘safeguard’ and ‘balance’ issues in a context of finite healthcare resources.

Let’s examine that stance in the light of the Legislative Council committee inquiry recently launched into end-of-life decision making.

The Medical Treatment Act 1988 confers the right to Victorian patients to refuse any medical treatment. The right applies even if the treatment is life-saving, for example a simple blood transfusion. The Act contains no ‘safeguards’, as the Premier refers to them:

  • The patient is not required to give any reason;
  • The doctor is not required to inform the patient of their condition or likely consequences of any treatment or its refusal;
  • The doctor is not required to consider or assess the patient’s mental capacity to decide including depression;
  • The doctor is not required to recommend a palliative consult (if relevant);
  • The doctor is not required to consult any colleagues for a further opinion about the patient’s illness or mental capacity;
  • There is no obligation on the patient to consider their decision again after a short time;
  • While there is a standard form 'Refusal of Medical Treatment' document that can be signed to provide documentary evidence of the refusal, it is not mandatory;
  • There is no mandated path of reporting or review.

 
Indeed, a doctor who goes on to administer medical interventions to the patient who has refused them is guilty of the offence of ‘medical trespass’ and can be prosecuted.

Further, it is quite legal for a patient to decide to die by voluntary refusal of food and fluids, an option suggested as appropriate by Dr Bill Sylvester in an IQ2 debate at Melbourne Town Hall in November 2012, to a hostile reaction from the audience. Some doctors provide respite care to patients choosing this path. however, like refusal of medical treatment, there are no legislated safeguards.

On the basis of these two kinds of end-of-life decision making that have been lawful for at least a quarter century in Victoria, and which have no legislated safeguards, what evidence do we have of the so-called ‘slippery slope’ of resource-strapped healthcare providers or greedy relatives persuading the sick to choose a path to die earlier rather than later?

Both Victoria Police and the former Minister for Health, the Hon. David Davis, have advised that there are no known prosecutions under the provisions of the Medical Treatment Act 1988 for such inappropriate persuasion.

So, in Victoria we have the experience of two forms of decision-making whose direct and foreseeable consequence is death, with no mandated safeguards and within 'finite healthcare resources' (which Mr Andrews refers to as his reason), not resulting in prosecutions for persuasion to 'choose' death.

If Mr Andrews’ argument is that terminally ill Victorians ought to be denied the right to choose assisted dying because of supposed slippery slopes of persuasion, that argument would exactly and equally apply to the refusal of life-saving medical treatment and to the refusal of food and fluids.

Surely his Government is not suggesting that the existing rights be rescinded: that patients be forced to receive any and all life-saving and life-prolonging treatment in order to avoid a 'persuasion' bogeyman who doesn’t exist?

The Premier's stance is even less defensible in the light of proposed assisted dying legislation which includes a suite of checks and balances that are absent from existing rights.

Some dying individuals, reflecting upon their circumstances and deeply-held values and beliefs, determine that alighting from the train of terminal illness one or two stops before the terminus is a vastly better option than being forced to endure the train ride until the very end. We compound their indignities by saying it’s OK to decide to starve yourself to death (and we might even provide support along the way), but not OK to decide to die peacefully surrounded by loved ones at a predetermined time.

It is commendable that the Legislative Council has resolved to investigate the issue of end-of-life decisions, and whose final report will better inform the Premier and all Parliamentarians. Submissions to the Committee are open until Monday 31st August.


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