Speech on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017

In Parliament | 16.11.17

The Hon. PENNY SHARPE (11:14): I support the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017. I commend the cross-party working group members the Hon. Lynda Voltz, the Hon. Trevor Khan, Dr Mehreen Faruqi, the member for Heathcote, Lee Evans, and the member for Sydney, Alex Greenwich. For all the talk about consultation or the lack of it in this place, this group has done the hard yards. They received 72 submissions and actually changed their bill as a result. We should all take note. This is a conservative bill. If passed, it will provide a small number of terminally ill people whose pain and suffering cannot be alleviated by other means the ability to get assistance to end their lives. By passing this bill we will give terminally ill people the ability to take control of their lives in the toughest of times and in circumstances each of us hopes we will never find ourselves.

Four years ago many in our community looked to this Parliament to work through the issues and establish the rules by which voluntary assisted dying could operate in New South Wales. Four years ago we debated a similar bill. While it was an important attempt, the bill could find only 13 votes in this Chamber. We failed. That failure to pass the legislation was more than a passing inconvenience. It had a direct impact on many people for whom the bill would have given comfort and support at the most difficult point of their lives. Some of the advocates for assisted dying have since died. At least one of them took their own life.

We know from numbers presented by the Victorian Coroner that 240 people with irreversible physical health conditions committed suicide between 2009 and 2013. Those 240 people took their lives through awful means. They used poisonings, hangings, firearms, asphyxiation, motor vehicle exhaust, trains, buildings and sharp objects. Those people died alone and in terrible circumstances. There is nothing to suggest that the numbers in New South Wales would be any less horrifying. This is why this bill is so important. I ask those who struggle with the idea of the State assisting people to die to think about the status quo, which is failing to provide the support, compassion and care that our fellow humans need in the final stages of their lives. I commend the efforts of the passionate supporters of palliative care and join them in their advocacy. No matter what happens with this bill, palliative care needs more resources.

Failure to legislate for a rigorous, safe and legal option for assisted dying 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 reassurance that at a 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 are harmed and cause much greater suffering for themselves and their families. They are still dying of a terminal illness. Some people's families and friends are risking jail as they seek to fulfil the wishes of their loved ones without any legal protection. Some people are 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 despite the best efforts of doctors, that the end will come slowly and painfully and that they will be alone, no matter the good intentions of government in relation to their care or the 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, no matter what, will 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 at least they have some choice at the end of their lives.

Earlier this year, my father died. He would not have qualified for assisted dying under this bill but his death, as with all death, brought into sharper focus our thoughts about death and dying. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life to have had the time, resources and support from caring doctors and nurses so that my family was with my father as medical intervention was withdrawn and as he died after being seriously ill. My father died with my sisters and my mum around him, and this is what he would have wanted.

As I have listened and read the stories of those who are asking us to pass this bill today, I wish for them a death of their choosing with all the support they can get from their families and friends. Under this bill, we can give them this. This bill is fundamentally about choice. It is about providing a choice for terminally ill people to receive help to avoid prolonged suffering. It is not an easy choice for some, but we must acknowledge that it is an easy choice for some and a choice that some people desperately desire. 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 makes abundantly clear through very strong safeguards that no-one will be forced to end their life 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.

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 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 commend the bill to the House.

HANSARD - NSW Legislative Council, 16 November 2017