Victoria

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"HOPE's" Branca van der Linden and the ACA misrepresent figures, again

Here we go again. Branca van der Linden of Catholic anti-VAD website “HOPE”, and the Australian Care Alliance — endorsed by a number of well-known, committed Catholic doctors — have just published more egregious misinformation against VAD. This time they've collectively piled it on Victoria's general suicide statistics, recently updated by the Victorian Coroner. So what did they say, and how did it misrepresent the actual situation? Let's take a look.

The reason the statistics are being discussed is because in 2017, Victoria's parliament legalised voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for the terminally ill. The law came into effect halfway through 2019, and 2020 was the first full year of its operation.

Australian Care Alliance gets the basics wrong

Here's the Australian Care Alliance's (ACA) splashy page trumpeting that Victoria's suicide rate has jumped 21.2% from 694 in 2017 to 842 in 2020.

acagetsstatswrongmarch2021.jpgFigure 1: ACA's splashy page trumpeting a 21.2% increase in Victorian suicides

That's... interesting. According to the Victorian coroner's official figures, there were indeed 694 suicides in Victoria in 2017. However, in 2020 the coroner's figure is actually 698, not 842 as claimed by the ACA. According to the ACA, Victoria's suicide count data looks like this (Figure 2).

acasuiciefigurewrong2021.gifFigure 2: The ACA polemically claims that Victoria's suicide count has increased 21.2%

So, how did the ACA reach a count of 842? Well, their argument is to shamefully and humiliatingly disrespect Victoria's terminally ill who died peacefully under its VAD law in 2020 — 144 of them according to the official 2020 reports of Victoria's Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board — and add them to the coronial count of 698 suicides.

The ACA points out that VAD supporters have said that legalising VAD should decrease Victoria's general suicides by about 50 cases a year, but say the count's gone up substantially instead. See how they craftily deploy logical fallacy to fabricate a crisis?

Arguing that VAD law must reduce the suicide count by 50 cases a year (but seemingly didn't) and at the same time adding VAD cases to the suicide count to complain that it's gone up, requires at least three assumptions:

  1. that all terminally ill violent suiciders now automatically qualify for and easily gain access to VAD; and
  2. that nobody else with a terminal illness who would not have chosen violent suicide, should or would use the law; and
  3. that no other factors make a significant difference to trends in general suicides.

 
All these assumptions are patently false.

Obviously, some people will not legally qualify for VAD; for example, amongst its restrictions it requires death to be expected with 6 months; 12 months for a small set of specific illnesses.

Obviously, some who would not have suicided but instead would suffer intolerably and against their wishes until death, will now choose to pursue VAD.

And obviously, well-known factors such as rates of mental illness, substance abuse, intimate relationship troubles, bullying, financial or legal difficulties, and other factors are major influencers of general suicide rates. But to the ACA, the only factor that supposedly has any effect is the one they are ideologically opposed to: VAD.

It's worrisome that this nonsense is sold to the public by ACA's supposed experts: “health professionals and lawyers”.

Cherry-picked overseas data, too

The ACA's ideological bias is further revealed by their website page about the “social contagion of suicide”. In it, they cite as authoritative, the 2015 Jones and Paton (both firm Catholics) article purporting to show 6.3% suicide contagion from VAD to the general population. I've comprehensively exposed that article as an ideologically-driven mathematical farce fuelled by no fewer than ten major scientific offenses. It's interesting that the ACAs methodology is just like Jones' and Patons': reporting VAD supporter statements that legalisation should decrease the general suicide rate, and then adding VAD deaths to conclude the opposite.

They also commit one of Jones' and Patons' other offences: selectively quoting data from other studies that might be seen to support their theory, but excluding critical alternative information from the same study that runs counter to the theory.

The ACA cites a Swiss study to breathlessly report that 6.5% of those who witnessed an assisted death in that country experienced sub-threshold PTSD, and 13% full PTSD. The ACA expressly states:

“Like any other suicide, assisted suicide can profoundly affect surviving family members and friends.” — The Australian Care Alliance

There you have it: the ACA draws a direct equivalence between peaceful VAD deaths in the face of terminal illness and with loved ones present, and lonely, violent deaths by general suicide.

The ACA cites no other relevant material from the Swiss article. That's revealing, because the article clearly reported that the PTSD rates were higher than in the general population. There's what the ACA left out: the PTSD rates were higher than for almost everyone else who hadn't just suffered the loss of a loved one.

To draw valid and meaningful interpretations, it is necessary to compare the bereavement challenges of VAD family versus families of general deaths, deaths in the face of extreme suffering without hastened death, and cases of violent suicide. As I've published before from peer-reviewed studies, bereavement symptoms of VAD family are at least as good as, and can be better than those where the deceased has suffered in extremis at the end of life, and certainly relative to violent suicides.

The ACA also doesn't mention that the Swiss study found a "prevalence of complicated grief ... comparable to that reported for the general Swiss population". It's not like the information was hard to find. It's right there in the Abstract on the front page of the article.

That the ACA cherry-picked a couple of Swiss data points while omitting key “unhelpful” information, and argued, by linking the selected cherries with the above quote, that said Swiss data established something it clearly did not (that VAD deaths supposedly cause similar family trauma as violent suicides), suggests an astonishing degree of ignorance.

The ACA's cherry-picking of data, while omitting key unhelpful information, suggests an astonishing degree of ignorance.

Enough of that.

Branca van der Linden cherry-picks, too

I've crossed pens (or is that keyboards?) with Ms van der Linden several times before in regard to misinformation. She misinforms on this matter, too.

Curiously, like the ACA and also without explanation, she cherry-picks just the 2017 and 2020 suicide counts from the Victorian coroner's report (Figure 3). You'd think this was the only data in the report, but no, it isn't.

vanderlindenvicsuicidestats2021.gifFigure 3: Branca van der Linden's version of Victorian suicide counts by year

She uses these two figures to argue that said drop of 50 cases per year hasn't happened. This employs the same fallacies as the ACA: suggesting that two single data points strongly support a hypothesis, and assuming that the thing one is ideologically opposed to, VAD, is the only thing to alter the rate of general suicides over time.

Like the ACA, she also suggests adding the VAD figures to the coroner's general suicide data to say that in that case, suicides have increased significantly.

Both the Australian Care Alliance and Branca van der Linden cherry-pick just two data points from more full and robust longitudinal data to try and argue their case against VAD.

So what does the coroner's full data set look like?

The actual numbers

The Victorian coroner's 2021 report into suicides contains data for all years 2016 to 2020 inclusive. And it looks like this (Figure 4).

viccoronersuicides2021.gifFigure 4: The complete set of data from the Victorian coroner's report on suicide counts per year

Now we're beginning to see a possible reason as to why the ACA and Ms van der Linden chose just two data points. Remember that VAD was legalised by the Victorian parliament in 2017. The law was not in effect for 2017, 2018, or the first half of 2019.

Well, the data clearly suggests an increasing suicide count trend up to 2018. The upward trend stops in 2019, when VAD was in operation for the second half of the year. And in 2020, the first full operational year of VAD, the upward trend has been interrupted by a downward result. Neither the ACL nor Ms van der Linden mention this.

Neither the Australian Care Alliance nor Branca van der Linden mention the fuller, longitudinal data that doesn't support, and indeed appears hostile to, their hypothesis.

Update 19-Mar-2021

I thought it so obvious that I didn't write it up, but a colleague points out it's important to highlight, that in picking just two data points to stake their claim, the ACA and Ms van der Linden chose 2017, and not 2018, as their reference year. To compare “after” with “before” in the most basicly valid manner (full longitudinal data is better), it is appropriate to compare the last data point that completely excludes the new condition (VAD law in operation), with the first data point that fully includes it.

Those years are 2018 (none of the year) and 2020 (all of the year). But the ACA and Ms van der Linden didn't pick 2018, they picked 2017.

What possible reason might explain that? Well, by comparing 2017 with 2020, they got to say that the general suicide count increased by 2 from 694 to 698. However, had they more validly compared 2018 with 2020, they would have had to report a drop of 19 from 717 to 698.

And that would have contradicted their flimsy confection that suicides hadn't gone down after VAD was introduced.

But even the raw suicide count statistics are a bit misleading.

Interpreting suicide data correctly

Using raw counts to compare suicide statistics (e.g. year to year or place to place) is lazy and wrong. All other things being equal, if you had twice the population, you'd expect twice the suicide count. To make valid comparisons, you have to compare rates, not raw counts. This is relevant because populations obviously change over time, and Victoria between 2016 and 2020 was no exception.

I've retrieved the official Victorian population figures by year and computed the standard official suicide rate statistic: suicides per 100,000 population. The Victorian suicide rates look like this (Figure 5):

vicsuiciderate2016-2020.gifFigure 5: Victorian suicides per 100k population by year

The data shows a rising suicide rate from 2016 to 2018, a levelling off in 2019 in which VAD was operational for half the year, and a fall back to the 2016 rate in 2020, the first full operational year of VAD.

Computing from the rate drop between 2018 (11.4 with no VAD law) and 2020 (10.8, first full year of VAD law), the equivalent count of suicide decrease in 2020 was 38 persons. And that's without assuming the general suicide rate would have continued its rising trend.

The equivalent suicide decrease from 2018 to 2020 was 38 persons.

Getting all the numbers right

The ACA correctly cites then Minister for Health, Ms Jill Hennessy, as stating in 2017 that "Evidence from the coroner indicated that one terminally ill Victorian was taking their life each week." That would be 52 cases a year, which the ACA rounds out to 50 a year. The headline figure from the coroner's report actually calculates to 48. No biggie, just round numbers.

But the figure is quite wrong. You have to read the coroner's special 2017 report to the Victorian parliament regarding suicides in cases of illness, to calculate the correct numbers.

The coroner's report didn't just include suicide data for terminally ill people. It also included cases of advanced incurable but not terminal illness, and cases of severe suffering resulting from injuries. So the terminal illness data (to which the VAD law is relevant) is a fraction of the total. We can calculate from the Tables in the report that 23% of the cases were in respect of injuries, so that leaves 77% for terminal and other advanced illnesses.

Of the illnesses listed, the relevant one as a proxy measure for terminal illness is “cancer”, and that comprises 50% of the illness cases. So, 50% of 77% of 48 cases a year = 19 cases a year in respect of terminal illness.

So that's an actual likely decrease of 19 suicide cases a year, compared with an equivalent drop in the actual data of 38 persons in the first full year.

The actual annual count of general suicides in respect of terminal illness, as reported to the Victorian parliament by the state coroner in 2017, was 19 persons a year, and not 50 as widely stated.

Don't get carried away

It's imporant to note that citing this interesting numeric analysis as “proof” of the law's effectiveness in respect of reducing Victoria's suicide rate, would, at present, be an overconfident claim. While far more firmly based in proper forms of evidence than the vapid nonsense promoted by the ACA and Ms van der Linden, this is a correlation. Correlation does not equal causation: the ACA and Ms van der Linden should remember that. For example, 2020 was a very unusual, Covid-19-dominated annus horribilis, which may have affected suicide rates in unexpected ways.

While the coroner's fuller data set so far is consistent with reasoned expectations of suicide substitution, it is premature to conclude the data proves the principle. More years' data, and more detailed, causative analysis involving the control of confounding factors, is necessary before reaching greater certainty in the association.

But as I've published in detailed and extensive analyses based on robust official data, so far all the longitudinal data on suicide rates in jurisdictions where VAD is lawful is consistent with suicide substitution, not suicide contagion. Some VAD opponents just cherry-pick their way through tidbits to try and argue the opposite.

To date, all the robust, longitudinal data on suicides in jurisdictions where VAD is lawful is consistent with suicide substitution, not suicide contagion.

Conclusion

The Australian Care Alliance and Ms van der Linden disgracefully cherry-pick and misrepresent Victoria's recent suicide data in a manner consistent with their own theories, while proper and appropriate analysis of the full data available shows results inconsistent with their hypothesis, and currently consistent with the opposite.

To paraphrase Ms van der Linden's own statement: “It is unfortunate that the deaths of terminally ill Victorians were politicised so shamelessly by [anti-]euthanasia activists for their own ends.”

These continued cherry-picked data gaffes are an embarrassment to their promoters.


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There's a good reason why assisted dying opponents don't mention Switzerland. [Photo by Andrew Bossi]

Supposed Dutch suicide contagion from assisted dying

Recently, Dr Theo Boer, an Assistant Professor at a "black-stocking" (strongly conservative Protestant) theological college in the Netherlands, was at it again — criticising the Dutch euthanasia law to anyone who would listen: "don't follow the Dutch euthanasia law path because it leads to 'suicide contagion'".

I've exposed Prof. Boer's cherry-picked nonsense before. Astonishingly, he even ignores data from the Dutch Euthanasia Commission, despite the fact he used to serve on one of its five Regional Review Committees.

What he doesn't mention is that amongst the five Regions, the Region with by far the highest rate of assisted deaths had the second-lowest rate of general suicide, and the Region with the lowest assisted death rate had by far the highest general suicide rate (Figure 1) in 2014,1 the year Boer left his Committee and began bad-mouthing the Dutch law. Quite the opposite of "suicide contagion".

dutchvadandsuiciderates.gifFigure 1: Dutch assisted death and general suicide rates by region, 2014

From multiple safeguards to just one

The Dutch euthanasia Act has a number of safeguards that stipulate who may qualify to access assisted dying in the Netherlands, and how qualification is assessed, implemented and reported to the authorities.

But there's another country that permits assisted dying with just one provision: Switzerland.

In effect since 1942, an exception in the Criminal Code permits assisted suicide, provided assistance is rendered for non-selfish motives. That's it. There's no legislated (or even government-regulated) requirements for age, illness or condition, decisional capacity, cooling off periods, or anything else.

In the 1980s, two assisted dying associations were formed to make assisted dying generally possible: Exit Deutsche Schweiz for German-speaking Swiss residents, and Exit A.D.M.D. for French-speaking residents.

Since then, several other smaller associations have been formed, including in 1998 Dignitas, which provides assistance to foreigners. (The main societies assist only Swiss residents.) The current membership of the societies, combined, is well in excess of 150,000 people, in a population of just 8.5 million. Assisted dying is often discussed openly in the media.

If "contagion" anywhere, in Switzerland, right?

Given that Switzerland has an abundance of the ingredients that religious opponents of assisted dying claim lead to "suicide contagion", you'd think they'd be shouting about Swiss "suicide contagion" from the rooftops.

But they don't mention Switzerland.

There's a powerful reason why: the data is not only unhelpful to their "contagion" theory, but actively hostile to it.

Latest official government data

I've written about Switzerland before, but, given the ongoing "suicide contagion" misinformation, I thought an update warranted. On request, my contact in the Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO) promptly re-supplied all publicly-available statistics of assisted deaths and general suicides, with the data now running up to 2017.

It makes for interesting reading. Figure 2 shows Switzerland's (CH) long-term general (non-assisted) suicide rate, along with the domestic (Swiss resident) and Dignitas (foreigner) assisted death rates. All the official (Australian Bureau of Statistics) longitudinal data I could find for Australia's (AU) general suicide rate is also included.

swissdeathratesto2017.gifFigure 2: Swiss death rates 1969–2017; Australian suicide rates 1990–2017

Immediately obvious is that the Swiss general suicide rate has dropped massively and consistently since the two main assistance societies were formed in the early 1980s. And it's continued to drop even as the rate of assistance, and public discussion, has increased over the most recent three decades.

I also asked the FSO how many cases on record were of minors (persons under the age of majority or 18 years). The answer? None. I double-checked. Zero. Zip. No minors receiving assisted dying in Switzerland. Indeed, cases under the age of 35 years old are uncommon.

Consistent with best practice

Indeed, the data is consistent with suicide prevention. The societies help people get the medical care they need and consider assisted death only when other avenues have failed to provide acceptable relief. Every assisted death is reported as such by the association to the authorities — otherwise the unexpected death would result in a coronial inquiry.

Each association has clearly-defined processes and oversight by ethics specialists. Clients requesting access are assessed carefully by doctors. (In fact, the lethal medication can only be lawfully obtained by medical prescription.) The associations take their responsibilities very seriously.

The data is also consistent with substitution: that what would have been some violent and lonely suicides as a result of unrelievable suffering from intractable conditions, are now peaceful assisted deaths.

And for the record, despite the Swiss law being in effect since 1942 versus Dutch regulation from only 1984; and Swiss law having only one provision versus Dutch regulation/legislation with many; in 2017 the Swiss assisted dying rate, including Dignitas cases, as a percent of all deaths, was less than half that of the Netherlands' rate.

Reasons for requesting an assisted death

Exit Deutsche Schweiz, by far the largest of the Swiss associations, has published statistics of its cases (Figure 3).

exitdsreasons2015.gifFigure 3: Reasons for pursuing assisted dying, Exit Deutsch Schweiz 2015

In 2015, like other jurisdictions, cancer was by far the most common reason (40.8%) for requesting an assisted death. Polymorbidities (22.4%) was next, followed by refractory pain at 8.6%, lung diseases at 5.0% and Parkinsons at 4.3%.

Despite no government-regulated access requirements, assistance for mental illness was very low at 1.7% (Dutch 1.2% in 2015) and cases of dementia at 1.4% (Dutch 2.0%; Belgian combined mental/dementia 3.1% in 2015).

And compared to Australia?

In the 1990s, the Swiss general suicide rate, although falling, was significantly higher than Australia's (Figure 2) until 2010, when the rates were the same. Since 2010, the Swiss suicide rate (with no legislated procedures for its permitted assisted dying) has continued to drop, while Australia's (at that time with no assisted dying law at all), began to rise.

This difference highlights the clear anchoring bias exhibited by religious opponents who cherry-pick their data to try and claim the rise in the Dutch general suicide rate must be the result of "suicide contagion" from assisted dying, when Australia's rate also increased over the same time period, but in the complete absence of an assisted dying law. (Victoria's assisted dying legislation didn't come into effect until mid-2019.)

Further, the Swiss rate has continued to drop even with a significant increase in assisted dying.

Conclusion

Of course, general suicide is a serious issue. It has numerous well-known risk factors (e.g. mental health, substance abuse, unemployment, relationship breakdown, opportunity) and protective factors (e.g. hotlines, funding mental health programs, unemployment benefits, removing opportunity), none of which assisted dying opponents mention while cherry-picking their statistics.

Meanwhile, as legislators contemplate the specific safeguards contained in Bills before their legislatures, it's important to strike an appropriate balance between sufficient safeguards, and inappropriately requiring those considering an assisted death to climb Mount Everest with one hand tied behind their backs.

Switzerland shows that even in a jurisdiction without legislated practices, access to assisted dying is modest, with assistance groups establishing their own stringent ethical and procedural standards.

And it amply demonstrates even under those conditions, an absence of supposed "suicide contagion".

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1 Official Euthanasia Commission data and official Dutch government suicide statistics by region.


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The Parliament of Victoria passed the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act in 2017

Victoria's Voluntary Assisted Dying Act (2017) has now come into effect. Including 68 safeguards, the Act gives Victorians with a terminal illness another option to consider at end of life, if it is of interest to them. As overseas evidence shows, the possible choice of voluntary assisted dying provides comfort and relief for the terminally ill and their loved ones. It demonstrates that the State respects the wider range of alternatives that dying patients may choose to pursue when faced with intolerable and unrelievable suffering.

The Act contains what is arguably the world's most detailed and carefully laid out safeguards.

Key aspects of the provisions are:

  • The person must be 18 years or over; and
  • Be ordinarily resident in Victoria and an Australian citizen or permanent resident; and
  • Have decision-making capacity in relation to voluntary assisted dying; and
  • Be diagnosed with an incurable disease, illness or medical condition that:
    • is advanced, progressive and will cause death; and
    • is expected to cause death within 12 months; and
    • is causing suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable; and
  • Doctors and other healthcare workers are not permitted to raise assisted dying — only to respond to formal patient requests.
  • The person must make three formal requests, the second of which must be written and witnessed by two independent people.
  • The person must make the request themselves. Nobody else is authorised to make the request, and the request cannot be made via an advance care directive.
  • Ordinarily, the minimum timeframe between first request and opportunity to take the medication is ten days.
  • The person must maintain decisional capacity at all three requests.
  • Two doctors must reach independent assessments that the person qualifies.
  • Only doctors who have completed specialist training for voluntary assisted dying may participate.
  • Any healthcare worker may decline to participate for any reason, without penalty.
  • A prescription dispensed for the purpose of voluntary assisted dying must be kept in a locked box and any unused portion returned to the pharmacy after death.
  • The person must self-administer the medication; except if the person is unable to, a doctor may administer. An independent witness is required if the doctor administers.
  • Establishment of an authority to receive assisted dying reports, to assess reports, and to refer unacceptable cases to disciplinary or prosecutorial authorities.
  • For Parliament to review summary reports; twice in the first two years and annually thereafter; a formal review at five years.
     

More information about the Act and how to access voluntary assisted dying are available from Health Victoria.

 

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Full list of safeguards in Victoria's voluntary assisted dying framework

Access

  1. Voluntary
  2. Limited to 18 years and over
  3. Residency requirement [Victorian resident and Australian citizen or permanent resident]
  4. Limited to those with decision-making capacity
  5. Must be diagnosed with condition that meets restrictive set of criteria [advanced, progressive and will cause death]
  6. End of life is clearly defined [death expected within weeks or months, not more than 12 months]
  7. End of life condition combined with requirement for suffering
  8. All of the eligibility criteria must be met
  9. Mental illness alone does not satisfy the eligibility criteria
  10. Disability alone does not satisfy the eligibility criteria

Request

  1. Must be initiated by the person themselves
  2. No substitute decision makers allowed
  3. Cannot be included as part of an advance directive
  4. Health practitioner prohibited from raising voluntary assisted dying
  5. Person must make three separate requests
  6. Must have written request [witnessed in the presence of a medical practitioner]
  7. Two independent witnesses to request [exclusions for family members, beneficiaries, paid providers]
  8. Specified time must elapse between requests [first and third requests must be at least 10 days apart with exception when death imminent]
  9. Additional time required to elapse between steps of completing process [second assessment and third request must be at least one day apart
  10. Must use independent accredited interpreter [if an interpreter is required]
  11. No obligation to proceed, may withdraw at any time

Assessment

  1. Eligibility and voluntariness assessed by medical practitioners
  2. Must be two separate and independent assessments by medical practitioners
  3. Assessing medical practitioners must have high level of training/experience
  4. Assessing medical practitioners must have undertaken prescribed training [to identify capacity and abuse issues]
  5. Requirement to properly inform person of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options, palliative care, etc, [by both assessing medical practitioners]
  6. Referral for further independent assessment if there is doubt about decision-making capacity
  7. Coordinating medical practitioner must confirm in writing that they are satisfied that all of the requirements have been met

Medication management

  1. Person required to appoint contact person who will return medication if unused
  2. Medical practitioner must obtain a permit to prescribe the medication to the person
  3. Medication must be labelled for use, safe handling, storage and disposal
  4. Pharmacist also required to inform the person about administration and obligations
  5. Medication must be stored in a locked box

Administration

  1. Medication must be self-administered [except in exceptional circumstances]
  2. If physical incapacity, medical practitioner may administer
  3. Additional certification required if administered by medical practitioner
  4. Witness present if medical practitioner administers

Practitioner protections

  1. Health practitioner may conscientiously object to participating
  2. Explicit protection for health practitioners who are present at time of person self-administering
  3. Explicit protection for health practitioners acting in good faith without negligence within the legislation
  4. Mandatory notification by any health practitioner if another health practitioner acting outside legislation
  5. Voluntary notification by a member of the public of a health practitioner acting outside legislation

Mandatory reporting

  1. Reporting forms set out in legislation
  2. Reporting mandated at a range of points and from a range of participants to support accuracy
  3. First assessment reported [to Board]
  4. Second assessment reported [to Board]
  5. Final certification for authorisation reported [to Board, incorporates written declaration and contact person nomination]
  6. Additional form reported [to Board] if medication administered by medical practitioner
  7. Prescription authorisation reported by DHHS [to Board]
  8. Dispensing of medication reported [to Board]
  9. Return of unused medication to pharmacist reported [to Board]
  10. Death notification data reported [to BDM and collected by Board]

Offences

  1. New offence to induce a person, through dishonesty or undue influence, to request voluntary assisted dying
  2. New offence to induce a person, through dishonesty or undue influence, to self-administer the lethal dose of medication
  3. New offence to falsify records related to voluntary assisted dying
  4. New offence of failing to report on voluntary assisted dying
  5. Existing criminal offences for the crimes of murder and aiding and abetting suicide continue to apply to those who act outside the legislation

Oversight

  1. Guiding principles included in legislation
  2. Board is an independent statutory body
  3. Board functions described in legislation
  4. Board reviews compliance
  5. Board reviews all cases of [and each attempt to access] voluntary assisted dying
  6. Board has referral powers for breaches
  7. Board also has quality assurance and improvement functions
  8. Board has expanded multidisciplinary membership
  9. Board reports to publicly [to Parliament every six months for first two years, thereafter annually
  10. Five year review of the legislation
  11. Guidelines to be developed for supporting implementation

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Palliative care specialist advances incoherent reasons to oppose VAD.

Director of Palliative Care at Cabrini Health, Associate Professor Natasha Michael, yesterday published an opinion piece in The Age newspaper. In it, she rails against Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying (VAD) Act which comes into effect on 19th June. Instead she articulates an arrogant and prescriptive view of what Australians should and shouldn’t be allowed, consistent with Catholic dogma, as I uncover.

Michael, along with fellow devout Catholic Dr Stephen Parnis, ‘tirelessly’ opposed the introduction of Victoria’s VAD law. They continue to actively oppose it, and her opinion piece reveals her spurious ‘reasoning’.

The Catholic Healthcare brick wall

More than half of all palliative care services in Australia are delivered through Catholic institutions, of which Cabrini Health is one arm. These institutions have determined that VAD will not be available in any of their facilities or via any of their services, even if the individual patient and doctor are supportive.

This arbitrarily limits access to lawful choice by citizens.

Confected ‘institutional conscience’

I say ‘arbitrarily’ because ‘institutional conscience’ is a confection: it doesn’t really exist. Only real persons have conscience. The fabricated dictates of any institution — presented as ‘moral rules’ — extinguish the actual real conscience of those who exist within it: at least, those whose conscience differs.

The upshot is that a specific cohort of religious, celibate men in Rome dictate whether Australian citizens can or can’t obtain lawful healthcare services from half the service providers.

So let’s examine what the institutional ‘conscience’ has to say.

Disgraceful framing in headline

We can’t let voluntary assisted dying negate our commitment to the ill”, Michael’s article headline screams.

Firstly, VAD is not available to the “ill”. It’s available only to those with terminal illness and intolerable suffering, according to 68 criteria.

Secondly, Michael invokes a false dichotomy of “negating a commitment”. VAD does not “negate a commitment”. Indeed, to fail to hear and respect a persistent, fully informed and tested request for VAD that meets all the criteria is to negate palliative care’s commitment to honour the patient’s deeply held values, beliefs and decisions.

Medical-coloured glasses

The introduction of voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria on June 19 will remind us of the occasional failure of medicine,” Michael says.

That’s it. The patient’s death is a failure of medicine, as though a person’s death is a medical event rather than a deeply human and private one of personhood.

It also flags the common but immature medical assumption that “death = failure”. Death is inevitable, not a “failure”. The key question about death for people with terminal illness is “how”, and Michael presumes to prescribe the “how”: being receptacles for interventions that she and her colleagues provide.

Let’s be clear. Many people are helped enormously by palliative care. That’s a great credit to the discipline’s specialists.

However, as Palliative Care Australia acknowledges, even the best palliative care can’t relieve all excruciating, debilitating and humiliating refractory symptoms.

Michael’s answer to this sometimes “failure” of medical interventions? Deliver more interventions, whether the patient considers them consistent with his own values, beliefs and circumstances or not.

They’re very heavily medical-coloured glasses indeed.

Three faux ‘threats’

Michael then invokes three faux ‘threats’ supposedly caused by lawful VAD in Victoria.

Faux threat 1: “Validating suicide as an acceptable choice”.

Michael exposes her own bias here: that all self-hastening of deaths are the same — that there is no meaningful difference between a dying person who is fully informed and whose rational choice for a peaceful assisted death has been extensively tested, with the violent and impulsive action of a person suffering a temporary, resolvable personal crisis, be it mental illness, substance abuse, intimate relationship breakdown or other circumstance.

Michael is pretty much on her own here. Most Australian doctors make a clear distinction between these very different contexts.

Faux threat 2: “accepting substandard medical care by supporting the lack of rigour in defining [VAD] eligibility”.

Michael overlooks that there is a major lack of rigour in existing, lawful end-of-life choices.

There are no statutory requirements for a patient to refuse medical treatment, even if the treatment would be life-saving.

There are no statutory requirements for the voluntary refusal of food and fluids in order to die, either.

More critically, despite terminal sedation being a common end-of-life medical practice but ethically problematic (including that it may hasten death and may not alleviate intractable symptoms), not only is there no statutory requirement for its practice, but neither the Australian Medical Association nor Palliative Care Australia have official guidelines on its practice.

Thus, in railing against the staggering 68 standards of practice prescribed in Victoria’s VAD law — vastly more than any other in the world — as a “lack of rigour”, Michael makes no mention of three other major life-end choices that have no such standards, including her own discipline’s terminal sedation.

Doctor, heal thyself (and thine own systems).

Faux threat 3: “introducing into the healthcare curriculum the intentional ending of life as acceptable medical treatment”

Michael creates a misleading impression here. By referring to ‘curriculum’ you might think that all medical students would have to undergo training on how to end lives, or be ‘indoctrinated’ to accept VAD. That is not true.

To be able to prescribe lethal medication under Victoria’s legislation, the doctor must undergo additional training in relation to that procedure. Doctors will only receive the training if they self-nominate for it: it’s not compulsory.

If, by ‘curriculum’ Michael means only “VAD might be discussed” in medical school, then she would have to articulate why termination of pregnancy (to which the Catholic church objects) should not be discussed, either. Nor the transfusion of blood, since many Jehovah’s Witnesses object to the procedure.

Own failure in palliative care principles

Nowhere in her opinion piece does Michael acknowledge that the patient may deeply hold values and beliefs that validly favour VAD. Thus, Michael offends the first principle of palliative care which is to make the patient the centre of care and to honour as much as possible the patient’s values, beliefs, attitudes and wishes.

Indeed, in her conclusion, Michael states that palliative care “remains committed to the ongoing accompaniment of our patients. Not abandoning them” and which is “the only plausible method of compassion and care.”

This surely is the most egregious and arrogant self-interest of all: patients must subject themselves to being accompanied by palliative care staff and their ‘interventions’ whether they want more or not.

On the contrary, to fail to hear and respect a genuine, informed and persistent request for a peaceful hastened death from a dying patient for whom this accords most firmly with his deeply held values and beliefs, is to abandon the patient.

Conclusion

Michael is of course entitled to her personal stance, and I celebrate her right to hold her views: for herself.

However, her ‘requirement’ that all Victorians be denied access to an option that four out of five believe to be moral — and instead subject themselves to interventions administered by Michael and her colleagues — reveals an unattractive arrogance.

It’s a shame that Catholic bioethics doesn’t teach more about reflection, especially as to whether one’s own beliefs ought to dictate and limit the choices of others with equally firmly held, though different, values.

In the meantime, Victorians are pawns to the tyranny of the Vatican as to whether there is a local healthcare facility that will hear and examine their request for a peaceful, assisted death in the face of terminal illness.

In many places, there won’t be.


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Victoria has shown what happens at the ballot box to candidates who oppose VAD

Many news outlets are reporting that Victoria's voluntary assisted dying (VAD) Act comes into effect mid-year, and how other Parliaments around the country are likely to implement similar reforms. Moves are afoot in Western Australia, Queensland, NSW and Tasmania, with other jurisdictions to follow. Marshall Perron, former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and architect of the first VAD law in Australia, has penned a media release to highlight how VAD influenced the Victorian election. The result wasn't pretty for opponents of VAD law reform.

Media release - Marshall Perron

Parliamentarians traditionally shy away from supporting voluntary assisted dying (VAD), believing it is politically toxic to do so. Victoria, under the Andrews government, has changed all that by showing the opposite to be true.

After legislating VAD – Victoria is the first Australian state to do so – Andrews won a thumping victory at the 2018 Victoria State election.

Former NT Chief Minister Marshall Perron said there is a common perception that the political class has not been listening to its constituents. VAD is a classic example.

There were multiple reasons for Victoria’s election result, and VAD was clearly one of them. With unprecedented 80-85% public support, it should be no surprise that Victorian candidates who supported VAD polled more strongly.

In the previous parliament, almost all Liberal members voted against the VAD legislation. The party suffered an average 6.04% swing against it in the State election.

In addition, two of the staunchest Liberal opponents of the VAD bill lost their seats. In the lower house, Robert Clark was tossed out as the Member for Box Hill, a seat he’d comfortably held for a quarter century. In the upper house, Inga Peulich was rejected by voters in South Eastern Metropolitan, a Region she’d represented for three terms.

Dying With Dignity Victoria and Andrew Denton ran targeted campaigns focusing on four electorates – Burwood, Albert Park, Bentleigh and Prahran.  They used Robo calls, advertising, social media and face to face meetings to inform voters about where their candidates stood on VAD.

The Liberal candidates (one a sitting member) in these four electorates all opposed VAD. They suffered an average 10.1% drop in primary votes compared with the average drop in the Liberal vote overall of 6.04%.

The Liberal sitting member lost his seat. In the other three seats the sitting Labor and Greens members, who all supported VAD, were returned with significantly increased votes. The results for these four electorates were, compared to the 2014 election:

  • In Burwood, Liberal member Grahame Watt lost his seat with a 6.47% swing against. Labor candidate and VAD supporter Will Fowles was elected.
  • In Albert Park, Labor member and VAD supporter Martin Foley was returned with a massive 10.17% increase (two party preferred). The Liberal primary vote dropped 10.24%.
  • In Bentleigh, Labor member and VAD supporter Nick Staikos was returned with a massive 11.27% increase. The Liberal primary vote dropped 12.59%.
  • In Prahran, Greens member and VAD supporter Sam Hibbens was returned with a 7.0% increase. The Liberal vote dropped 10.29%.
     

Mr Perron, who introduced the world’s first successful VAD legislation in the Northern Territory in 1995 said candidates can increasingly expect to lose support when they ignore the wishes of the voters they seek to represent.

In a contest tighter than the Victorian election turned out to be, a handful of seats retained or lost on VAD could determine the outcome.

Marshall Perron


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With a handful of exceptions, the Coalition has demonstrated itself to be 'unrepresentative swill' on assisted dying law reform.

It was with tongue in cheek that I recently quoted former Prime Minister Paul Keating to wonder if politicians voting on assisted dying Bills were ‘unrepresentative swill.’ The now-obvious answer to this question has become more than just humorous, with the publication yesterday of the Hansard record of Victoria’s Legislative Assembly vote on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017.

How ironic it was that the very day after I quoted Keating’s slight against his then-hostile Senate, Keating himself, a conservative Catholic, would come out against voluntary assisted dying (VAD) reform.

Hansard record makes compelling reading

But, more importantly, the Hansard record of votes on the Victorian Bill in the lower house make for compelling reading.

Figure 1 shows Victorian voter support for VAD (from ANU Australian Election Study 2016 data) by political preference, and MP votes in support of the Victorian Bill (lower house, 2017).

Chart: Victorian electorate support and MP vote support for VAD (lower house, 2017)Figure 1: Victorian electorate support and MP vote support for VAD (lower house, 2017)
Sources: AES 2016; Hansard

It’s quite obvious that Greens MPs (100% v 91%) , Labor MPs (86% v 84%) and minor/independent MPs (67% v 76%) approximately represented the proportion of voter support. (It’s unsurprising that all Greens MPs vote in favour of VAD Bills: it’s Greens policy; while it’s a ‘conscience’ matter for other parties.)

The yawning Coalition chasm

But the yawning chasm of Coalition MPs not representing their own voters (14% v 73%) is even more stark. That’s a gap of nearly sixty percentage points. Surely that would be enough to raise the eyebrow of any conservative voter?

Aside from a handful of Coalition MPs who voted in support of the VAD Bill, it’s clear that there’s generally no real ‘conscience’ vote across the Coalition benches.

The corridors have been buzzing with stories of threats to Coalition promotions and preselections, and threats to preference deals for the state election next year, though of course there’s nothing public and on the record. Just the serene statement that “our members have a conscience vote.” The discrepancy amongst Australian Coalition ranks has been formally uncovered before in university research.

It’s a national story

However, it’s not like this is confined to Victoria. Here’s the same chart (Figure 2) for all state VAD bills across Australia since 2000 which have had a division on the vote — so we know who voted which way.

Chart: Australian electorate support and state MP vote support for VAD (all state Bills since 2000)Figure 2: Australian electorate support and state MP vote support for VAD (all state Bills since 2000)
Sources: AES 2106; Hansards

Again, the largest and most striking gap between voter desire for reform and MPs opposing their voters’ wishes is amongst the Coalition ranks, at a full sixty percentage points short of proper representation.

It’s a similar picture to that published by university researchers in 2008, who found just 17% Coalition voting support in favour of VAD in the federal parliament, too.

As I’ve explained before, the Party leader’s public statements can be ‘persuasive,’ and Mr Matthew Guy, leader of the Victorian Parliamentary Coalition, has made his entrenched opposition to this reform loud and clear.

Inform your own voting

As debate in Victoria’s upper house commences tomorrow, we’ll be watching who’s in favour and who’s against. And we’ll report the voting record to help inform how you cast your own vote at Victoria’s state election in November next year.

In the meantime, here’s the full record of the Victorian Legislative Assembly votes.

Full voting record – Victorian Legislative Assembly 2017 VAD Bill

Ayes

47

  

Noes

37

Allan, Jacinta

Labor

 

Angus, Neil

Liberal

Andrews, Daniel

Labor

 

Battin, Brad

Liberal

Britnell, Roma

Liberal

 

Blackwood, Gary

Liberal

Bull, Josh

Labor

 

Blandthorn, Lizzie

Labor

Carroll, Ben

Labor

 

Bull, Tim

Nationals

Couzens, Chris

Labor

 

Burgess, Neale

Liberal

D'Ambrosio, Lily

Labor

 

Carbines, Anthony

Labor

Dimopoulos, Steve

Labor

 

Clark, Robert

Liberal

Donnellan, Luke

Labor

 

Crisp, Peter

Nationals

Edbrooke, Paul

Labor

 

Dixon, Martin

Liberal

Edwards, Maree

Labor

 

Fyffe, Christine

Liberal

Eren, John

Labor

 

Gidley, Michael

Liberal

Foley, Foley

Labor

 

Guy, Matthew

Liberal

Garrett, Jane

Labor

 

Hodgett, David

Liberal

Graley, Judith

Labor

 

Kairouz, Marlene

Labor

Green, Danielle

Labor

 

Katos, Andrew

Liberal

Halfpenny, Bronwyn

Labor

 

McCurdy, Tim

Nationals

Hennessy, Jill

Labor

 

McLeish, Cindy

Liberal

Hibbins, Sam

Greens

 

Merlino, James

Labor

Howard, Geoff

Labor

 

Northe, Russell

Ind.

Hutchins, Natalie

Labor

 

O'Brien, Danny

Nationals

Kealy, Emma

Nationals

 

O'Brien, Michael

Liberal

Kilkenny, Sonya

Labor

 

Pesutto, John

Liberal

Knight, Sharon

Labor

 

Richardson, Tim

Labor

Languiller, Telmo

Labor

 

Riordan, Richard

Liberal

Lim, Hong

Labor

 

Ryall, Dee

Liberal

McGuire, Frank

Labor

 

Ryan, Steph

Nationals

Morris, David

Liberal

 

Smith, Ryan

LIberal

Nardella, Don

Ind.

 

Smith, Tim

Liberal

Neville, Lisa

Labor

 

Southwick, David

Liberal

Noonan, Wade

Labor

 

Suleyman, Natalie

Labor

Pakula, Martin

Labor

 

Thompson, Murray

Liberal

Pallas, Tim

Labor

 

Tilley, Bill

Liberal

Paynter, Brian

Liberal

 

Wakeling, Nick

Liberal

Pearson, Danny

Labor

 

Walsh, Peter

Nationals

Perera, Jude

Labor

 

Watt, Graham

Liberal

Sandell, Ellen

Greens

 

Wells, Kim

Liberal

Scott, Robin

Labor

     

Sheed, Suzanna

Ind.

     

Spence, Ros

Labor

     

Staikos, Nick

Labor

     

Staley, Louise

Liberal

     

Thomas, Mary-Anne

Labor

     

Thomson, Marsha

Labor

     

Ward, Vicki

Labor

     

Williams, Gabrielle

Labor

     

Wynne, Richard

Labor

     

 

 

 

 

 

 TOTAL AYES

 

 

 TOTAL NOES

 

Labor

38

 

Labor

6

Greens

2

 

Greens

0

Liberal

4

 

Liberal

24

National

1

 

National

6

Other

2

 

Other

1

TOTAL

47

 

TOTAL

37

         

Abstained

2

     

Asher, Louise

Liberal

     

Victoria, Heidi

Liberal

     
         

Did not vote

1

     

Brooks, Colin

(Speaker, Labor)

 

Note: The vote represents 87 of 88 seats. The seat of Northcote was vacant owing to the untimely death of its representative, Fiona Richardson, from cancer.


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The Victorian parliament is debating the Government's Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating once famously branded the Senate “unrepresentative swill” for obstructing his legislative agenda. Today, the question of how representative our political masters are remains moot.

Major community support for VAD

Take voluntary assisted dying (VAD) for example. Poll after poll demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of Australians want this additional choice for people in extremis at the end of life. The impeccable Australian Election Survey (AES) conducted by Australian National University scholars last year confirmed that 77% of Australians want VAD reform, with 13% undecided and just 10% opposed.

Strong support (43%) is ten times greater than strong opposition (4%), and support is high across the political spectrum: amongst minor/independent (69%), Coalition (77%), Labor (80%) and Greens (87%) voters. Public support has been in the majority for more than four decades.

Political support missing in action

But since the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996, none of the many VAD Bills before various state parliaments has passed. And the Northern Territory’s Act was torn down by the federal parliament just eight months after coming into effect.

A 2008 university study of federal MP voting opportunities found 100% of Greens, 55% of Labor, and a paltry 17% of Coalition MPs voting in favour of VAD.

New analysis

Now, a new analysis of the ten state VAD Bills since 2000 where final divisions were called, offers further insights. It found 100% of Greens MP voting opportunities were in favour, along with 51% of Labor, 29% of minor party and independent, and a similarly paltry 17% of Coalition MPs. Excluding South Australia, whose parliament has debated the greatest number of VAD Bills, the Coalition support rate was just 9%.

Overall, while state Labor MP votes fell 29% short of Labor voter attitudes, Coalition MP votes fell an astonishing 60% short of Coalition voter attitudes. At the state level, Coalition MPs had the most voting opportunities — nearly half (48%). No wonder passing VAD Bills is challenging.

It begs the question, how is it that our legislative representatives fail to reflect clear public majority views on matters of conscience for so long?

Hidden reasons behind MP opposition

Obviously, lobbying on both sides of the conversation in part informs MPs’ views, but there are several more persuasive factors.

For a start, there’s a “truism” held by many MPs that their vote in favour of a VAD Bill would lose them more votes at a general election than would a vote against the Bill. However, the opposite has been demonstrated in multiple studies.

Further, I’ve shown before that opposition to VAD is largely religious.  A university study has also found that those who are more religious and who are politically engaged tend to hold very conservative views. So while there are religious MPs on both sides of politics, Coalition MPs are naturally more inclined to hold much more conservative views.

But that doesn’t fully explain the massive 60% representation gap on the Coalition side, either.

In good conscience?

A key factor lies in the seemingly reassuring principle of the “conscience vote.” The major parties have announced that their members are accorded a conscience vote (also known as a “free vote”) on the VAD Bill. That simply means that there’s no official published party policy on the matter and party members may vote freely on the basis of their own conscience.

There are two significant issues with this state of affairs.

The first is that the member may refer exclusively to their own conscience. But what if the MP’s conscience is at odds with the electorate’s? For my home state of Victoria, the 2016 AES study found 79% of the community in favour of VAD. There are 88 members of the Victorian parliament lower house, and just 40 members in the upper house. Therefore, it’s possible for as few as just 20 Victorian MPs to vote “no” in order to extinguish the will of 3.2 million Victorians (79% of 4.05 million Victorian voters).

If that weren’t enough, the second issue is that the right to ‘conscience’ is granted only in respect of the Bill itself, not on procedural matters about the Bill. It can make a huge difference.

How the parry works

Here’s what happened in 2008 when Victorian Greens MP Colleen Hartland’s VAD Bill was before the Legislative Council. MPs were afforded a conscience vote, and many of them had said they were supportive of VAD in general, but couldn’t support Hartland’s Bill in its current form. (That’s also a common ruse of MPs who in reality oppose the reform in principle but wish to appear ‘open minded’.)

When the final vote on Hartland’s Bill was lost, then Greens MP Greg Barber immediately moved a motion to refer the Bill to a parliamentary committee so that it could be improved to MPs’ satisfaction. Neither Labor nor Coalition parties afforded their members a conscience vote on this procedural matter, instead directing MPs to vote against such motions. The referral, which may have resulted in Victorians having wider end-of-life choices years ago, was cynically buried.

Most voters remain unaware of the shenanigans played in the corridors of power to achieve such results.

Australia’s special political conservatism

They’re not the only shenanigans, though. Another university study comparing federal MP conscience voting patterns in the UK, New Zealand and Australia found Australia to be different, accounting for why the UK and NZ have legalised marriage equality, while Australia hasn’t.

Firstly, the centre-left in Australia has a larger proportion of Catholic members than in the UK and NZ, accounting for some of the shortfall in Labor representation of progressive views.

Secondly, those amongst Coalition ranks, but with more liberal social consciences, had been lashed by Coalition party whips to vote against progressive reform. So while there was a public display of fairness and neutrality, the reality was quite different.

Borne out in state parliaments

These findings are replicated in Australian state parliament votes too, with Coalition MPs rarely if ever voting in favour of progressive social reform. Coalition MP votes on VAD including and since Hartland’s legislative attempt in 2008 are telling: in Victoria 2008 10:5 against, in Tasmania 2009 6:0 against; in Western Australia 2010 19:1 against; in NSW 2013 10:0 against; in South Australia 2016 14:7 against and in Tasmania 2017 13:1 against.

Rather than reflect 77% Coalition voter support for VAD, Coalition MP voting patterns reflect the highly negative stance of party leaders, whipped through the parliamentary party membership. For example, then WA Premier Mr Colin Barnett made it clear he thought assisted dying was “government-sanctioned killing”. Tasmanian coalition leader Mr Will Hodgman said that “protection for [vulnerable] people cannot be guaranteed.” Then-NSW Premier Mr Barry O’Farrell declared himself “strongly opposed”.

Back to Victoria’s Bill under debate

The situation in Victoria is looking somewhat more positive, with Premier Mr Daniel Andrews and many in his Cabinet publicly supporting reform. A lengthy, detailed, professional and well-resourced process has informed the crafting of the Bill.

However, opposition leader and would-be Premier Mr Matthew Guy has stated his resolute opposition to it and that he intends to vote “no”. That would mean he is quite comfortable for his own personal view to extinguish the contrary views also held in good conscience by 34,626 of the 43,831 voters in his own electorate of Bulleen, and 3.20 million of Victoria’s 4.05 million voters. (Electorate numbers as at 10 October 2017.)

An obvious solution

There’s an obvious solution for MPs whose own consciences disallow them from reflecting the overwhelming majority conscience of the electorate.

They could consider abstaining — simply absenting themselves from the chamber during the division. That would keep their own consciences intact while allowing the electorate’s conscience to be reflected.

I’m a constituent of Mr Guy’s. Over a period of months I made six robust attempts to meet with him to discuss these matters, especially the covert whip arrangements and the consideration of abstention. I can be persuasive in obtaining appointments, but my best efforts proved wholly unfruitful.

As I said to Mr Guy’s private assistant after the last failed attempt, voters could be forgiven for believing he’s more interested in meeting allegedly shady characters in fancy Brighton restaurants, than meeting with his own constituents.

Victorians are watching the parliamentary VAD debate. We’re taking notes that will inform our votes at the state election late next year.

Indications are at present there’s a good chance that Victorian MPs won’t be “unrepresentative swill”.


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The Guardian reports a fracas within the Anglican church over a $1m political expenditure.

Anglican and Catholic bishops seem to be going out of their way to alienate their constituencies, including in respect of voluntary assisted dying and marriage equality law reform. As a result, the writing on the wall is writ large for the continued decline of religion in Australia.

Many Australian clerics are trying their hardest to foil Parliamentary attempts to drag Australia into the 21st century on social policy. They seem to care little for the ongoing demise of their own constituencies.

Religion declining since the 1960s

Religious affiliation in Australia has been declining consistently since the 1960s, consecutive Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) census figures show (Figure 1). At the 2016 census, somewhat more than half (60%) of all Australians claimed a religion. More Australians than ever before identified as ‘no religion’ — for the first time ever a larger group than any single religious denomination.

Chart: Australian religious affiliation by census yearFigure 1: Australian religious affiliation by census year
Source: ABS

Weak religious commitment

Not only has religious affiliation been dropping, but the nature of the affiliation is weak (Figure 2). Amongst the two largest religious denominations, a quarter of Catholics (26%) and nearly half of Anglicans (47%) are Notionals: that is, they identify with the denomination but never attend religious services. More than half of Catholics (52%), and four in ten Anglicans (41%), attend religious services only occasionally (Occasionals: several times a year or less often).

Chart: Australian denominations and Australian religious identity (ARI-6)Figure 2: Australian denominations and Australian religious identity (ARI-6)
Source: Australian Election Study (AES) 2016

Just 22% of Catholics and a mere 12% of Anglicans demonstrate commitment to their denomination through dedicated service attendance (Regular = monthly or more often, and Devout = weekly or more often).

The picture is particularly grim for the Anglican church, dominant in Australia from Federation until the 1960s. With both a deeply impoverished affiliation rate in 2016 (13.3%), and just 12% of the flock dedicated to service attendance, a miniscule 1.6% of Australians are committed Anglicans.

The picture is only slightly better for the Catholic church. With 22.6% affiliation in 2016, and 22% of those committed to service attendance, it's a slightly larger but still damningly small 5.0% of Australians who are committed Catholics. Further, the Catholic church’s affiliation may be significantly lower at the next (2021) census, as Australians vent their dismay and disgust at how badly it’s handled the scourge of child sexual abuse that’s occurred under its ‘pastoral umbrella.’

Hollow ‘leadership’

Across all religious denominations, just 16% of Australians are committed to their denomination — Regular or Devout religious service attenders — while 30.1% Reject religion altogether.

And yet those at the head of their ships of faith still demand that we listen to and comply with their moral dictates, assuming that they have an automatic right to steer our morality in their own chosen direction. If they think they’re ‘leading,’ most Australians aren't following.

The indications are that they're going the way of Kodak, now a small, wan shadow of its former dominant self. If the Anglican and Catholic churches were companies with voting shareholders (or even not-for-profits with voting members), the Boards and executives (archbishops and bishops) would have been, for overseeing such profound and continuing erosion of their brand franchises, replaced long ago.

Entrenched rather than learning

You’d think all this would be a warning message to archbishops and bishops to seek to understand their flocks and build bridges for mutual understanding and engagement; to demonstrate a bit of flexibility in recognising alternative and equally respectable moral codes that were not established in ancient and very different times. But no.

Their recent performances on both voluntary assisted dying and marriage equality law reform suggest otherwise.

The fact is that to rebuild their franchises, the churches need to reach out to their Occasionals and to their Notionals — those who identify with the denomination but rarely if ever attend services. But the bishops have been pleasing only (some of) their Regulars and Devouts. It's a classic and literal case of “preaching to the converted.”

Voluntary assisted dying

In the matter of voluntary assisted dying (VAD) law reform, there are presently VAD Bills before both the NSW and Victorian parliaments. Figure 3 shows Australian attitudes toward VAD by religious affiliation.

Chart: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward voluntary assisted dyingFigure 3: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward VAD
Source: AES 2016

Opposition to VAD amongst most denominations is very small, and really only makes an appearance amongst minor Christian and non-Christian denominations. Just 10% of Catholics and 7% of Anglicans oppose VAD, 5% and 3% of them strongly.

Figure 4 shows the real story. Opposition to VAD amongst Rejecters, Socialisers, Notionals and Occasionals is almost non-existent, and support is in a huge majority (85% of Socialisers, 89% of Notionals and 78% of Occasionals). Opposition to VAD amongst religion Rejecters is less than 2%. That is, opposition to VAD is almost entirely religious, although religious opposers pretend their opposition is nothing to do with faith.

Chart: Australian religious identity (ARI-6) and attitudes toward voluntary assisted dyingFigure 4: Australian religious identity (ARI-6) and attitudes toward VAD
Source: AES 2016

Only amongst Regulars and Devouts does opposition to VAD make a real appearance. Yet even amongst Devouts, with the strongest opposition, it’s in the minority (47%).

And what have the bishops been doing? They’ve campaigned strongly against VAD, spreading misinformation. Take for example the Catholic Church’s latest version of its anti-euthanasia polemic ‘brochure’ (Figure 5).

The Catholic Church’s latest polemic brochure against voluntary assisted dyingFigure 5: The Catholic Church’s latest polemic brochure against VAD
Source: Catholic diocese of Byron Bay

This amateur production reveals a superficial understanding of the issues and a penchant for hyperbole. Worse, it employs significant misinformation in order to create FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), as does an advertisement taken out by a number of bishops from various denominations, in Melbourne’s major daily newspaper (Figure 6).

Chart: The June 2017 bishops' anti-VAD print advertisementFigure 6: The June 2017 bishops' anti-VAD print advertisement
Source: Herald Sun

The bishops’ manoeuvres will only alienate their congregation’s least committed members, the Notionals and Occasionals — the very people they should be wooing back to the pews, and who are strongly supportive of VAD as a valid and respectable response to intolerable and unrelievable suffering at end of life.

Perhaps the bishops would find this suggestion unpalatable, too much like a sales pitch. If that’s the case, one can only point out that selling the claim of saving of souls is the very task of evangelism. One could ask, “is your God likely to approve heartily of the continued withering of Australian faith?”

Marriage equality

The second contemporary example is marriage equality (ME). Figure 7 shows Australian attitudes to ME by religious denomination.

Chart: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward marriage equalityFigure 7: Australian religious affiliation and attitudes toward ME
Source: AES 2016. Note: There was no ‘neither/nor’ option in this survey question

A clear majority of Australians in all groups except minor Christian denominations support marriage equality. That includes 74% of Catholics, 63% of Anglicans and 60% of Uniting Church members.

Figure 8 shows attitudes toward marriage equality by religious identity.

Chart: Australian religious identity and attitudes toward marriage equalityFigure 8: Australian religious identity (ARI-6) and attitudes toward ME
Source: AES 2016

Support of marriage equality is in a clear majority amongst Rejecters (88%), Socialisers (82%), Notionals (73%) and Occasionals (71%). Around half (49%) of Regulars also support marriage equality.

Only amongst Devouts is support for marriage equality in the minority, with a quarter (25%) supporting and three quarters (75%) opposing it.

And what have the bishops been doing? They’ve run a massive campaign against marriage equality law reform. Indeed, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, announced that the diocese had donated, from precious church funds, $1 million to the ‘No’ campaign.

The public was even more dismayed to discover the diocese had granted just $5,000 to dealing with entrenched domestic violence in its ranks, at the same time as allocating the $1 million to preventing the equal expression of love.1

Given that marriage equality is almost certain to be legalised in Australia either directly after this voter ‘poll’ or in the term of the next Parliament, that’s an extraordinary squandering of a vast charitable sum for no net result. Calls have been made for the diocese’s tax-exempt status to be reviewed.

Substitute movements

In fact, so refractory has been the stance of many bishops, that Australians of faith have resorted to establishing their own networks outside the churches, for example Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia, Australian Christians for Marriage Equality, and Australian Catholics for Equality.

Conclusion

The evidence is incontestable: opposition to VAD is almost completely religious, and opposition to ME is largely religious, despite protestations to the contrary.

Bishops’ conduct in relation to these reforms, which most Australians want, have been unhelpful by resisting Australia’s move into the 21st century — on the basis of ancient interpretations of scripture to which only a small minority of Australians subscribe.

The bishops' conduct has run strongly counter to the compassion and understanding they could have shown in order to engage the Notionals and Occasionals amongst their flocks; to halt the erosion of their religious capital, and to rebuild it.

These bishops most certainly don't represent the general views and beliefs of most Australians on VAD or ME. Rather, they give the appearance of administrators who are determined to preside over smaller and smaller congregations: a kind of “slow euthanasia.”

---

  1. Gleeson, H 2017, Sydney Anglican church confesses to domestic abuse in its ranks, plans to reform with new policy, ABC News, viewed 10 Oct 2017, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-10-10/sydney-anglican-church-to-unveil-domestic-abuse-policy/9033426>.

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The latest religious right 'think tank' lobby group, the Institute for Civil Society.

I challenge the latest religious right commentators opposing Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill to skip the flip-flopping and engage constructively.

They’re at it again. This time it’s the religious right’s latest ‘think tank’ front group, the impressively-named Institute for Civil Society. Sounds grand, doesn’t it?

But if you look into their lot in life, it’s to protect ‘religious freedoms.’ By that, they mean the right to lawfully discriminate against others of whom they disapprove, while at the same time arguing that they not be discriminated against.

Mark Sneddon and Sharon Rodrick of the ‘Institute’ published an opinion piece in Fairfax Media today.

In it, they slam the Victorian Government’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, which was introduced into the Parliament recently.

They criticize the Bill for inadequate safeguards. (There are no fewer than 68 of them.)

The logical fallacy

They level several criticisms at the Bill to say it's not 'safe'. But they could have advanced any criticism of the Bill to claim, as they do, that “the vulnerable will be at risk” — a logical fallacy as I’ve pointed out before. The "vulnerable will be at risk", by circular definition, if the Bill is printed in black ink (as it is) instead of purple, but they didn't complain about the colour of the ink.

The flip-flop

The point is, they flip-flop because they’re remarkably inconsistent in their position. At the same time as pointing out supposed flaws in the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, demanding a much higher standard of proof about a number of things, they completely fail in their opinion piece to even mention — let alone demand the same level of safeguards for — an already-legal and equivalent hypothetical risk for the “vulnerable.”

Equivalent hypothetical risk in operation for nearly 30 years

In Victoria, patients have an inalienable right to refuse any and all medical treatment. No reason need be given, even if the treatment is life-saving. The Medical Treatment Act 1998, currently in force, has several safeguards to protect against coercion or undue influence. In Section 5(1), one doctor and “another person” (who can be anybody) must be satisfied that:

  • “the patient has clearly expressed or indicated a decision”; and
  • “the patient’s decision is made voluntarily and without inducement or compulsion”; and
  • “the patient has been informed” about their condition and “has appeared to understand that information”; and
  • “the patient is of sound mind and has attained the age of 18 years.”
     

They’re all the legislated safeguards for the refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

And how many cases of undue influence have been prosecuted in Victoria over the nearly 30 years the Medical Treatment Act 1998 has been in effect? Precisely none. Not one.

So much for Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick’s avaricious relatives lurking at every bedside.

A new, equivalent hypothetical risk

The Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2016, which will come into force in March next year and which extinguishes the Medical Treatment Act 1998 at that time, also contains several similar safeguards for the refusal of life-saving medical treatment.

In witnessing an Advance Care Directive (Section 17), the two signatories, only one of whom must be a medical doctor, must certify that:

  • the person “appeared to have decision-making capacity” in relation to the documented decisions; and
  • the person “appeared to understand the nature and effect of each statement”; and
  • “the person appeared to freely and voluntarily sign the document”; and
  • “the person signed the document in the presence of the two witnesses”; and
  • “the witness is not an appointed medical treatment decision maker for the person.”*
     

In Section 52 of the Act, a health practitioner is forbidden to administer medical treatment if they are aware the patient has refused it, however (lawfully) refused.

This Act was passed in the term of the current Parliament: that is, by the same State MPs who are now considering the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

There was no great fracas over the sensible safeguards spelled out in the new Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act. There was no onslaught of “crisis!” op-ed screeds published in newspapers. There were no countless hours of talking heads tut-tutting and painting doomsday scenarios.

It was passed by the Parliament and accepted by the people as striking the right balance.

No safeguards at all in many cases

And that’s it: the sum-total of safeguards to refuse life-saving medical treatment in Victoria. However, if the patient refuses medical treatment verbally, there are no mandated safeguards at all in either old or new Act, because the statutory safeguards apply only to refusal given in writing.

Yet despite all this, Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick rail against safeguards against coercion and elder abuse only in regard to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, in which the safeguards are of a significantly higher calibre, with, for example, mandatory multiple doctor opinions, documentation trail, multiple requests, no go-ahead until approval by an external authority, notifications of numerous kinds, oversight by a specially-established panel, and so on.

It’s obvious what a flip-flop Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick’s demands are in respect of decisions that will foreseably result in death.

Another embarrassing flip-flop

Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick particularly also complain at length at the supposedly ‘lax’ definition of decision-making capacity in the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

That’s a major and embarrassing flip-flop. Here’s why.

The section of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill that stipulates those requirements (Section 4) is the same section number 4 that governs the right to refuse of life-saving medical treatment in the Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act 2016. Only a few words have been changed to alter the context from refusal of treatment to consideration of assisted dying. Otherwise, the Sections are identical.

Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick don't point this out in their opinion piece. Indeed, I was unable to find online any evidence that they had published any complaint about the provisions when the Medical Treatment Planning and Decisions Act was in debate, nor since. If they have, I’d be happy for them to point it out.

Is it all a strategic ruse, anyhow?

It’s pertinent to ask if the objections are a ruse anyhow, because, as Andrew Denton has rightly pointed out, a key opponent strategy is not to give an outright “no” to assisted dying Bills, but to say only “not this Bill” and create an atmosphere of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) so that it is defeated.

A typical ruse example

By way of example, I’ve published an account of how Victorian MP Daniel Mulino published outrageous misinformation about assisted dying. As a result, we had an extended conversation, during which he acknowledged that he had indeed published misinformation. At the end of the conversation I asked if he could support the Government’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill. (He’s a member of said Government.)

No, it’s too liberal, he said, pointing to Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, now in force for nearly 20 years, as a more conservative approach. So I asked him if he would support a Bill like Oregon’s.

No, he said, there were still concerns about it.

By now you’ve spotted the merely incremental withdrawal of supposed possible support. So I asked him outright if there was any form of assisted dying Bill he could support.

The relevant word within a long discourse: No.

And there’s the answer that belies the political strategy. It doesn’t matter one whit what provisions are included in an assisted dying Bill, just criticize a bunch of provisions and create FUD to defeat it.

 

A direct challenge to Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick

If “doubters of this Bill” are genuine about permitting assisted dying in some defined circumstances, the duty is on them to define those circumstances and recommend wording to enact it.

And that’s the challenge I throw down directly to Messrs Sneddon and Rodrick. Don’t just bitch and gripe: define precisely what provisions and wording you think would be acceptable.

If you fail to stipulate what you deem acceptable, then your opposition to “this flawed Bill” is, like the supposedly ‘soft’ opposition of other campaigners in the negative, merely a ruse.

And that’s rather suggested by your deliberate use of the term “killing” for what most Australians believe to be an understandable and welcome release. But let’s give you the benefit of the doubt… for now.

Will you rise to the constructive challenge, or lurk in the shadows merely making snide remarks and flip-flopping?

----

* Section 62 of the Act also requires a doctor to notify the Public Advocate if “significant treatment” is refused — but only if it is refused by a substitute decision maker on behalf of the patient: not by the patient herself. And “significant treatment” is defined as treatments (not non-treatments) which are likely to have a serious impact on the patient (bodily intrusion, risk to life, side effects or distress). “Significant treatment” in the Act does not mean treatment whose refusal may result in death.


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The Parliament of Victoria is currently debating an assisted dying Bill.

As the Parliament of Victoria prepares to debate an assisted dying Bill, South Australian Catholic anti-assisted-dying lobbyist Mr Paul Russell is at it again. This time he's sent a missive to Victorian politicians shouting about, amongst other things, a crisis of assisted dying numbers in Washington state. He’s conveniently cherry-picked his arguments again.

Mr Russell wrote that in Washington state:

“deaths from lethal drugs prescribed under the Act have nearly quadrupled (376%) from 51 in 2010 to 192 in 2016.”

Now I’ve called Mr Russell out before for misinformation, for example his laughable ‘secret’ opinion poll, promoting a misrepresentation of a Council of Europe determination, complaining at the same time that people will die too early but yet live too long, and spreading despicable misinformation about Dutch neonatal euthanasia.

His latest claim extends his misinformation crown title.

Don’t get me wrong. He cites the correct raw data figures for Washington. But he packages them up handily with FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) wrapping, all tied up with the most sinister bow he can muster.

I’ve criticised the use of uncontextualized raw data before, and I do so again.

The relevant facts

Washington state legalised assisted dying by ballot in 2008. The following year the law was put into practice, and 2010 was the first full year of its operation.

Here’s the rate of assisted deaths as a proportion of all deaths in Washington state for all the years on record. As you can see, the rate hasn’t even reached one half of one percent of all deaths in 2016.

 2009 

 2010 

 2011 

 2012 

 2013 

 2014 

 2015 

 2016 

 0.07% 

 0.11% 

 0.14% 

 0.17% 

 0.23% 

 0.24% 

 0.30% 

 0.35% 

 

Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to spread FUD, if it were just one case last year and two this year, assisted dying opponents would be shouting from the rooftops: “Crisis!! 100% increase!!”. But in reality, only a small minority use the law, yet thousands of patients and their families are given comfort by the option being avaialble even if they don't use it. That message was made loud and clear by Oregon Senator Ginny Burdick. Washington's Death With Dignity Act is modelled on Oregon's, and Oregon's Act has been in effect for twenty years.

A Catholic trifecta

Of course in his missive, Mr Russell, like his fellow Catholic whom I’ve also called out for misinformation, Prof. Margaret Somerville, avoids referring to Swiss data. And their fellow Catholic Mr Daniel Mulino, who furnished a minority report to the Victorian Parliament’s recommendations on end of life choices, a report I’ve also called out for stunning misinformation, fudges his numbers about Switzerland, referring to data from 1998 without further context.

Why do these lobbyists avoid or selectively refer to the Swiss situation? Because the actual data is an inconvenient truth to their FUD story-telling.

An inconvenient truth

Switzerland’s assisted dying law came into effect seventy-four years ago, in 1942. If just one person had used the law in 1942, using Mr Mulino’s favourite annual increase figure of 17.5%, that would equate to 110,338 people pursuing an assisted death in Switzerland in 2014.

I say 2014 because that’s the most recent year for which official Swiss Government assisted dying figures are available. And what was the actual figure in 2014? There were 742 cases of assisted dying amongst Swiss residents, and Dignitas reports that it assisted 198 foreign nationals. That’s a total of 940 assisted deaths.

Let’s add another 60 foreign-national assisted death cases from the much smaller Swiss society that provides accompaniment for foreigners. That makes around 1,000 cases in 2014, including all those who came from all over the world. And it’s less than one hundredth of the minimum rate the doomsayers predict by cherry-picking one statistic that suits their argument.

Swiss law has the fewest safeguards

The Swiss assisted dying law has none of the safeguards of the Washington law. By Mr Russell and Co’s reckoning, you’d think that the Swiss (and those who visit) would be dropping off like flies.

By way of further comparison, the doomsayer number of assisted deaths for 2014 (a minimum of 110,338 cases) is substantially greater than the total number of deaths in Switzerland that year: 63,938. It’s an obvious impossibility.

In 2014, the Swiss rate of assisted deaths including all the foreign nationals who came to use its law, was 1.5% of all deaths; and 1.2% for resident-only cases.

And the rate of assisted deaths in Luxembourg in 2014 (legalised in 2009), whose laws are much more liberal than Washington’s though stricter than Switzerland’s, was 0.17% of all deaths. It’s odd how the doomsayers don’t report Luxembourg data, either.

And what are these cases?

These are cases of people in extremis with no realistic prospect of relief or improvement, choosing a peaceful assisted death as a better option than being forced to prolong their torture, according to their own deeply-held beliefs, values and examined consciences.

Mr Russell believes they should be required to endure their torture. There is a point to it, he says: because it joins them “in some mysterious way to the sufferings of Christ”... whether others believe in Christ, or at least Mr Russell’s version of him, or not.

You won't find this degree of candour on his anti-assisted dying website, but you can find it at NewsWeekly, which is run by the National Civic Council (NCC), itself established by Australia's most famous and conservative lay Catholic, B. A. Santamaria. Mr Russell has been President of the NCC South Australian chapter.

It’s not the numbers, it’s the circumstances

To be clear, in no jurisdiction has its legislature enacted access to assisted dying on the basis of a numeric ceiling. They’ve enacted access on the basis of intolerable and unrelievable suffering. And to this day, those are the folks who may be granted access to an assisted death.

Conclusion

Again, Mr Russell (and colleagues) do themselves no favours by conspicuously cherry-picking the data they want to use, and wrapping it up in threatening garb to create FUD amongst politicians.

Wiser heads will prevail in Victoria.


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