Calls to overhaul voluntary assisted dying laws

The Victorian government is facing a growing chorus of calls from doctors and patients for reform to the state’s assisted dying laws.

Laws introduced in 2019 include 68 separate safeguards, some of which have evolved into barriers rather than safeguards, according to some.

One of the clauses effectively gags medical practitioners from initiating a conversation about voluntary euthanasia with patients, and is one aspect of the laws advocates are pushing to change.

Legislation dictates that the Victorian government must hold a review in the fourth year of the laws’ operation, and the Andrews government has slated the second half of this year for the process.

Advocacy group Dying With Dignity (DWD) is leading the chorus for change in the lead-up to the review. Victorian DWD vice-president Jane Morris said that while the 2019 laws have allowed many in the state to experience “beautiful and brilliant” stories, others told of heartbreaking experiences.

Removal of what DWD says are now obsolete safeguards would help avoid such stories in the future, Ms Morris says.

One of the safeguards allows access to a lethal substance for terminally ill adults who have no more than six months to live – or no longer than 12 months for those with a neurodegenerative diagnosis. Such patients must also meet other strict eligibility criteria such as being able to give informed consent.

In the case of Geelong man Daryl Goodman, six months was not long enough. Mr Goodman, 72, diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer that had spread to his bones, had wanted to wait for a warm day, so he could feel the sun on his face, with a photo of his wife who died in 1994, as he swallowed a lethal medication that would kill him swiftly.

He was advised when diagnosed that he had between two and five years to live, but deteriorated far more rapidly than expected and passed away just nine months after the diagnosis.

Mr Goodman’s daughter, Cherie Loncar, said it was obvious to all that her father did not have long to live and he became too ill to complete his application for voluntary assisted dying.

Complicating matters further was the fact that Mr Goodman’s family had great difficulty finding an oncologist with the mandatory training to facilitate his wishes.

“He wanted to be able to die peacefully and with dignity, but he was robbed of that,” said Ms Loncar.

The shortage of doctors having undertaken the mandatory training has highlighted another issue, albeit one of Commonwealth, rather than state law. That law prevents doctors from communicating about voluntary assisted dying via ‘telehealth’.

This makes it illegal for a person to discuss suicide through a carriage service, which includes phones, text messages, emails and telehealth services, with penalties for a breech up to $222,000.

Melbourne-based GP Nick Carr has described the telehealth law as a “completely ridiculous interpretation” of the legislation.

Dr Carr has helped 48 people lawfully obtain a permit to end their lives, and is preparing to fight the Commonwealth law.

The law Dr Carr is fighting comes outside the remit of Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying legislation, so will not be addressed by the review later this year.

However, a Victorian government spokesman said the government continued to advocate to the Commonwealth to amend the criminal code.

Have you had a family member or friend go through the process of a voluntary assisted dying application? What was their experience? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

Also read: Who decides cause of death and whether someone died from COVID?

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.
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