Speech in support of assisted dying (voluntary euthanasia)

In Parliament | 23.05.13

Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill 2013

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE [10.22 a.m.]: I support the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill 2013.

After thousands of emails both for and against; after reading many stories and many thousands of words in the material presented, both for and against; after working my way through the bill; after attending briefings; and after sitting with and hearing the stories of people with terminal illnesses and their families and friends, I have no difficulty whatsoever in supporting this bill. I fear that at this time in this place the bill will not find the level of support to make this legislation a reality. I acknowledge that some members have deeply held views in relation to assisted dying. I acknowledge that the model being put forward is not something that some members can support at this time. I also acknowledge that some members do not believe that circumstances exist where the State can put in place the safeguards that would make them able to reconsider their opposition in relation to assisted dying.

I sincerely hope that after this bill has been dealt with there can be a better process that would allow members in this place to fully unpack the issues that legislation like this throws up and that in the future we can find the strength required to support the rights of the terminally ill. Failure to pass this legislation is more than a passing inconvenience that will be dealt with at another time. We need to be cognisant that failure to pass this legislation will have a direct impact on many people for whom this bill would give comfort and support at the most difficult point of their lives. The people asking us to support this bill come from all walks of life: they are men and women; they come from different faith communities; they are different ages; they live in our cities, our towns and villages in every corner of the State; some of them are wealthy and many of them are not.

The people for whom this legislation matters are all suffering from a terminal illness—an illness for which there is no cure, an illness that will see the last days, weeks and months of their lives consumed with great suffering. Even the best palliative care in the world will not alleviate their pain and the loss of control of their lives or help them to retain their dignity. Families are forced to witness the pain, suffering and loss of individual autonomy of a cherished loved one. Families of the people who want us to pass this bill will suffer themselves, not just from the inevitable grief and loss of the important person in their lives but they will also be left with guilt, sadness, frustration, anger and despair that they will not be able to help their loved one to leave the pain and suffering behind at the time of their choosing.

For me, supporting this bill is a compassionate choice that recognises that for a small number of people with a terminal illness assisted dying is the only option for them. My support for this bill has required me to examine the bill closely to ensure that it contains the appropriate criteria and safeguards that satisfy me that what is being put forward is rigorous, compassionate and appropriate. This bill requires that those who are eligible to receive assistance have to meet a number of criteria: A person must be at least 18 years old; they must be a resident of New South Wales; they must be suffering from a terminal illness—that is, an illness that will result in their death and which is causing them severe pain and suffering; they must have been fully informed of the diagnosis and prognosis of their disease and have had all other options, including palliative care, explained to them; and they must have decision-making capacity and be making the decision freely, voluntarily and after due consideration.

Once a person meets all of those criteria their request for assisted dying will be assessed by two independent medical practitioners who must certify that they meet the criteria. They are also required to see an independent psychiatrist and, if necessary, an independent social worker to certify that the person was fully informed of all their medical options, that they are able to make an informed decision and that they are not under any duress to make the request for assisted dying. The health professionals involved in making the certifications must not receive any financial benefit from the person's death. There are severe criminal penalties for coercion of the person by medical practitioners and there are processes to protect individuals from family coercion.

A person with a terminal illness who has begun the process of seeking assisted dying can change their mind at any time, and that must be respected. There are provisions in the bill for health practitioners which protect those with conscientious objections to assisted dying. No health practitioner can be forced to assist someone to die, nor should they. The bill also sets out a monitoring mechanism to oversee the operation of this legislation via the establishment of the Voluntary Assisted Deaths Review Panel. The panel will be able to report to Parliament at any time, annual reports will be tabled in this Parliament and there will be a statutory five-year review. I am comfortable that the bill puts in place a regime that is workable and has the right checks and balances and safeguards.

This bill is fundamentally about choice. It is about providing a choice for terminally ill people to receive medical help to avoid prolonged suffering. For those who wish and need assistance to end their life, the bill provides a rigorous, safe and legal option for them to make that choice. It recognises, and indeed makes clear, that no-one will be forced to do anything against their will. This bill goes to the heart of what it means to be an autonomous individual—an individual who has the freedom to make decisions in their own best interest, free from the interference of others who would not make the same decision in the same or similar circumstances, as is their choice.

The bill is about difficult choices, but none the less these choices should be available for those who seek them. Failure to legislate for a rigorous, safe and legal option is already having significant consequences for those with terminal illnesses and their families. Some people are taking their lives much earlier than they would if they had the reassurance that at the time of their choosing they could seek assistance to end their lives. Some people are attempting to take their lives and are not successful, the outcome being that they harm themselves and cause much greater suffering to themselves and their families.

There are some people whose families and friends are risking jail as they seek to fulfil the wishes of their loved ones without any legal support. There are people sitting alone with minimal support watching and waiting as their bodies succumb to cruel diseases that will eventually kill them, knowing that it will only get worse, that there is nothing that can be done; that the end will come slowly and painfully and that they will be alone, no matter what good intentions are promised from Government in relation to their care or promises made in the name of medical intervention. There are already many negative, and indeed horrific, consequences of the failure of legislators to find a framework for people in this invidious position.

Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, it is the case that some people with terminal illnesses in New South Wales are able to get assistance to end their lives. Some are able to travel overseas to access assisted dying in other countries. Some are able to find a doctor who is willing and able to assist them to hasten their death. Some have the support of a resourceful family who will, no matter what, find a way to assist their loved one in their desperate desire to be released from their suffering. These people are in less than ideal circumstances, but they at least have some choice at the end of their lives.

As I have reflected on this bill and formed the reasons for my support it is for one reason more than any other that I believe the Parliament should find a way to support those with terminal illnesses to have the choice to end their lives. The reason is that, ultimately, assisted dying is one of the most solemn acts of freedom for an individual. Individuals who are faced with a terminal illness that brings them great pain and suffering should be able to choose the time they seek relief and no longer live with the unbearable pain and suffering that their incurable and terminal illness brings. I do not want that most solemn choice to be available only to those with the wealth, the family and/or the medical resources to make it a reality. The only way to ensure that every citizen in New South Wales has access to this choice is for this Parliament to provide a safe, rigorous and compassionate legislative regime.

I acknowledge that some members here today will never be able to agree with me on this issue. I acknowledge that the bill is unlikely to pass on this attempt. I am disappointed that we have not been able to find the path that would have provided a bill that could pass today. To the many who have shared their stories, I have not forgotten, nor will I forget, the pain and suffering you are going through. I commit to working with members of this Parliament and those dedicated people in our communities who wish to advance legislation that will make access to assisted dying a reality for those with terminal illnesses. I commend the bill to the House.

Source: Hansard