Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying review told of cruel delays, access inequality

March 4, 2024
Dying with Dignity has given positive feedback to the 5-year review of Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying laws. Photo: Dying With Dignity Victoria/Facebook

Section 116 of Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 requires a review of the first four years of the Act in its fifth year, between June 2023 and June 2024.

The Centre for Evaluation and Research Evidence is currently conducting the review, which started last July.

Dying With Dignity Victoria (DWDV) said in its submission there was an urgent need for a legislative review. It said too many people are not having their needs met in a system that is not compassionate, or timely, for many.

Its submission was based on feedback “over several years from people seeking VAD and their families and carers, the doctors on our board, [and] other health professionals with whom we interact”.

Victoria is now falling behind other states which have benefitted from learning from its experience in legislating and implementing the law.

While safeguards need to be robust, in practice, some have proven an unconscionable burden on the terminally ill.

According to DWDV board member Dr Nick Carr: “Too many Victorians are unable to access VAD or find their application experience distressing and slow.”

Carr said that while he welcomed Victorians being able to access VAD “there are many ways in which Victoria’s VAD systems, processes and practices fail to meet the needs of Victorians seeking VAD, as well as the needs of their families and carers”.

DWDV made seven key recommendations, including that the prognosis requirement and definition of suffering be widened. Suffering is too narrowly construed as people with intolerable physical or mental suffering who do not meet the prognosis requirements are excluded.

The organisation also wants a restrictive “gag clause” lifted. Registered health practitioners are prohibited from initiating a discussion about VAD with patients. No other area of healthcare requires patients to know their treatment options before consulting a doctor.

It said not enough doctors are providing VAD. Out of 35,000 medical practitioners in Victoria, only 208 had actively participated in VAD as of last June. This particularly impacts individuals, their families and carers, in regional and rural areas.

Institutions that object to VAD still have the power to significantly curtail people’s ability to access a medical service. This needs to change, DWDV said.

Victorians who lack the ability to make decisions at the time they become otherwise eligible for VAD, or who lose that capacity during the assessment process, are excluded from accessing VAD, and this also needs to change DWDV said.

As conversations about VAD cannot occur on the telephone, email or telehealth, this negatively affects those seeking VAD, especially those in regional and rural areas. This requires amending the Criminal Code Act 1995. 

Jane Morris, DWDV President, told Green Left: “Some issues limiting access to VAD cannot be addressed without legislative change … it is critical that a full review of the legislation is scheduled as soon as possible, given no further review is mandated in the current Act.”

DWDV will be present when the review’s report and key findings are tabled in the Victorian Parliament.

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