Live and let die: NSW to debate Voluntary Assisted Dying bill

June 28, 2021
Any exemption that puts the church above the laws of the state is cause for concern. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The right of the terminally ill to die with dignity has more than 80% community support and is already legislated in most states. But, with the lines between church and state increasingly blurred in lobby-rich New South Wales, will it be enough to beat the unholy alliances between conservative MPs and wealthy factions of hard-right religious ideologues?

The same politicians who are big on “small government” seem determined to use parliament to micromanage every aspect of our personal lives, including: who we can marry, how we describe our gender, whether we are allowed abortion (rape and incest victims included), requiring a permit to exercise what was once a democratic right to peaceful protest, what power source we can use, which super funds we can pay into and even the types of car we can drive.

Now, those same forces are seeking to prevent the terminally ill in NSW from having the same compassionate end-of-life options as the rest of the country.

Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation is back on NSW parliament’s agenda. It would give terminally ill citizens the right to a dignified, medically-assisted death, at a time and place of their choosing.

Although the usual scare campaign is underway, it is not packing the same punch as it once did.

NSW is now isolated on not having legalised VAD and public support — including from people who identify as Christian — is strong.

After decades of public demand and relentless advocacy by organisations, such as Dying With Dignity,  NSW, is one of the few states left to legislate for it.

VAD is already law in Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia, where it took 17 attempts over 25 years before democracy finally prevailed. It is about to be debated in Queensland.

Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have been demanding VAD for many years, but are repeatedly blocked by far-right federal MPs who use an anomaly in how the federation was set up to overturn territory decisions.

Nonetheless, it seems all that pushback has only served to delay the inevitable.

A VAD bill, introduced by Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann in 2013, was defeated 23 votes to 13. Another bill was introduced in 2017 by Nationals MP Trevor Khan, following a cross-party Parliamentary Working Group on Assisted Dying. It was defeated by just one vote.

Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich is attempting to get a bill passed this year, and is expected to have several cross party co-sponsors.

Greenwich told Green Left the bill will be drafted in July and he intends to introduce it to the Legislative Assembly in September. “People in NSW should have the same options of end-of-life care as people in other states in Australia. I don’t think it’s appropriate to deny them those.”

With other states allowing VAD there is a groundswell of public support for it in NSW, but will that be enough to get it across the line?

Clearly, there is an increase in cross-party consultation and support, which advocates say is essential to its success.

Vice President of Dying With Dignity NSW (DWD NSW) Shayne Higson became a VAD advocate after watching her mum suffer a terrible and unnecessarily prolonged death from brain cancer. Higson has been a key campaigner for dignified death ever since.

Higson cannot understand how opponents can lack so much compassion while claiming the high moral ground. She told GL she is more optimistic this time and agrees the bipartisan increase in support and cross-party consultation has been encouraging.

“Politics can play a significant part in these debates,” she said. “Bills are not always debated purely on merit as we all know. That’s why it is so important that MPs who bring Private Members Bills before parliament work collaboratively and in a cross-party manner. This did happen in 2017. It is happening now, so we expect there will be a large number of co-sponsors of the NSW VAD Bill 2021.”

Higson said Greenwich has been courageous and thorough in championing the VAD bill, and has brokered much cross-party good will. While optimistic, she is under no illusions about the well-funded opposition to VAD and knows how important public support for the law will be. “Supporters within all parties will need to work together to make this law reform a reality for NSW in 2021,” she said.

God-given right?

The church leadership has always done its best to ensure terminally-ill people are kept alive in aged and palliative care institutions, despite un-relievable pain and suffering.

This is done in the name of compassion and religious ethos. They claim the public support for VAD is misguided, a reaction to sub-standard palliative care services — services they provide in return for a large amount of government funding.

This raises questions about the lack of tangible separation between church and state.

Yet, surprisingly, DWD NSW said almost all the people of faith they have spoken with are very supportive of VAD, as long as proper checks and balances are in place.

Higson said the hold-ups are at the political level. “Everyone agrees strict safeguards are necessary, and the right for individuals to conscientiously object should be protected. But the church hierarchy also wants the legislation to allow it to exempt entire institutions as well.”  

Given its very public track record in mismanaging palliative and aged care institutions, any exemption that puts the church above the laws of the state is cause for concern.

Regarding opposition to VAD, DWD NSW told GL: “We are already seeing massive spends on social media by groups such as Australian Christian Lobby and HOPE Australia, who we suspect are funded by the Catholic Church.”

When we look at market share, the opposition is hardly surprising. The Catholic Weekly reported the NSW government spends $220 million a year on palliative care, with Treasurer Dominic Perrottet announcing an additional $83 million in last week’s budget. Rebecca Burdick Davies, Director of Strategy and Mission at Catholic Health Australia, said it was not enough.

That is more $300 million annually for palliative care services. Giving the dying in their care another option — whether institutional or via Home Care Packages — has to hurt these religious institutions’ bottom line.

Their all-out opposition to VAD in the face of widespread support for it suggests the cruelty of an unnecessarily extended death is not just ideological, but built into their business model.

How to help

Higson said it is very important that supporters of VAD, who want it to become legal, take the time to sign the DWD NSW petition and contact their MP to express support for the bill. “Now is the time to act to help us keep momentum.”

In the decade since her mother passed away, Higson has seen the campaign and support for VAD go from strength to strength. The public has been made more aware of the facts and have been less affected by the scaremongering about “wrongful deaths” that have never happened in jurisdictions where VAD is legal.

“I do feel the tide has turned,” Higson said, “and we are now optimistic that NSW Parliament will provide people with the same end of life choices now available in other states.”

In a political environment where religious influences continue to try to impose a missionary model of social control over us all, we can only say amen to that.

[Suzanne James has a background in writing policy, governance, risk management and regulatory compliance frameworks and in legislative compliance application. Sign the DWD NSW petition and contact your MP to ask them to support the legalisation of Voluntary Assisted Dying.]

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