Draft Consultation Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill released in NSW

This week Alex Greenwich, the independent Member for Sydney, has honoured a commitment made earlier this year by releasing his draft Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021, allowing for a period of consultation with his parliamentary colleagues and key stakeholders before he introduces the Bill into NSW Parliament next month.

The much-anticipated Bill, aims to give terminally ill people in NSW the ability to avoid the extreme suffering many experience at the end of their lives, despite the best available medical care.

Dying with Dignity NSW has welcomed the release of the legislation and are just one of a number of key organisations who have expressed support for the proposed assisted dying laws.

The draft legislation has already received the endorsement of key stakeholders including the Health Services Union (HSU), Council on the Aging NSW (COTA), Older Women’s Network NSW (OWN), Cancer Voices NSW and the Australian Paramedics Association NSW.

The HSU surveyed their members earlier this year and found 89% supported assisted dying law reform and, in a recent nationwide poll of older Australians, COTA found 72% of people over the age of 50 in NSW supported reform with only 12% opposing.

Endorsement of the legislation by the NSW Branch of the Australian Paramedics Association is not surprising. NSW APA Secretary, Gary Wilson says paramedics see patients who are suffering intolerable and untreatable pain through a terminal illness every day, so they believe these people deserve a choice.

“Voluntary Assisted Dying is not a replacement for palliative care, rather it is a safety net for those who wish to access it when palliative care can no longer meet their needs,” said Gary Wilson.

“Australian data indicates that a significant number of suicide attempts are by people with terminal illnesses. These are unnecessarily traumatic for family, friends and emergency services personnel. Instead, these people should be able to access the option of safe and dignified voluntary assisted dying.”

Cancer Voices NSW has supported the introduction of voluntary assisted dying in NSW since mid 2017 and this position was strongly reinforced by its membership in January 2021 when over 80% of survey respondents indicated support for the introduction of VAD arrangements in NSW as a matter of priority.

“People with cancer have the right to understand all of the options available to them in determining their form of treatment, and in the choices available to them when they are facing the reality of their end of life,” said Murray McLachlan, Deputy Chair, Cancer Voices NSW.

“Cancer Voices continues to emphasise the importance of improved end-of-life and palliative care service provision across all of NSW as a fundamental right of those affected by cancer. However, circumstances do regularly occur where the development of the disease will only result in the death of a person with cancer. When that arises, that person must be provided with an arrangement whereby they can continue to be in control of their life, and just as importantly, the nature, circumstances and timing  of their death.”

Alex Greenwich has written to all members of parliament providing the Draft Consultation Bill, offering expert briefings and seeking their feedback. Included in each package were personal testimonies from their own electorates. These stories, gathered by Dying with Dignity, emphasise the urgency of this law reform.

Every other Australian state has already moved on this issue with voluntary assisted dying laws already operating in Victoria and Western Australia, having passed in Tasmania and South Australia and soon to be debated in Queensland. Dying with Dignity NSW, and all the MPs who support the proposed legislation, can see no reason why terminally ill people in NSW should be denied the choice of a peaceful death, when the majority of other Australians have this right.

Alex has offered all members of parliament the opportunity to co-sponsor the bill and has already welcomed cross-party support from across the parliament, including from Nationals MP the Hon Trevor Khan (who led the push for reform in 2017), Independent Member for Macquarie Greg Piper, Labor MP frontbenchers Jo Haylen and Jodie Harrison as well as Labor MPs Liesl Tesch, Tim Crakanthorp and David Mehan, Greens MP Cate Faehrmann (who led a push for reform in 2013), the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party’s Helen Dalton and the Animal Justice Party. Labor, the National Party, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, and One Nation have confirmed their members will have a conscience vote, with all Greens supporting it.

Alex plans to introduce legislation in late August and expects parliamentary debate to be at least two months away.

The bill is a conservative model of voluntary assisted dying, limited to people who are terminally ill and whose extreme suffering cannot be alleviated. It contains strong safeguards including:

  • Limiting access to people whose terminal disease will cause death within six months, or 12 months for neurodegenerative conditions and who is experiencing suffering that cannot be tolerably relieved.
  • Multiple assessments for decision-making capacity, and whether the patient is acting voluntarily and without pressure or duress
  • Two doctors with prescribed experience and mandatory training will be required to assess and approve the patient’s request, and where appropriate will be able seek further assessment from a specialist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
  • No health practitioner will be forced to participate and can conscientiously object or not participate for any reason.
  • Before any doctor can participate in the scheme, they must have conducted training approved by the Health Secretary, which will include how to identify signs of coercion.
  • Provisions enshrine the ability for hospitals and residential facilities to have a policy to not provide VAD services.
  • All steps will need to be documented and provided to a statutory oversight body
  • The legislation includes a number of new offences with high penalties, including:
    • Life for unauthorised administration of substance
    • 7 years for inducing someone to apply for VAD
    • 12 months for not returning a substance

Dying with Dignity NSW knows that an overwhelming majority of the NSW community are in favour of voluntary assisted dying laws – with around 80% in support.

We hope that MPs remember their constituents’ views when considering this Bill, because there is majority support in every single electorate in NSW. We will be encouraging all MPs to consult with their constituents and speak with terminally ill people before deciding how to vote on this Bill.

Dying with Dignity NSW is hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic is not be used as excuse to delay this important law reform. The Parliaments of Tasmania and South Australia have passed VAD laws in the last year, during the pandemic, as have foreign jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Spain and New Mexico. There is also growing momentum and legislative progress in Scotland, Ireland and the UK and Queensland’s Parliament is set to debate an assisted dying bill in September. We can’t let COVID-19 derail our efforts in NSW and Alex Greenwich agrees.

“COVID has stopped a lot of things, but it hasn’t stopped people being diagnosed with terminal illnesses or experiencing intolerable pain and suffering from that illness; it hasn’t stopped the need for NSW to provide the same compassionate and dignified end of life choices as other states”

“For the terminally ill in NSW who face extreme suffering, this is urgent. They want peace of mind, dignity and as much control as possible over a gentle and compassionate end of life.

“For the NSW citizens who need this bill, every day matters. I am confident that my parliamentary colleagues have heard that message loud and clear. It’s now up to them to carefully review and consider the legislation and then get this done,” Mr Greenwich said.