THE FACTS ABOUT DYING WITH DIGNITY
The Roy Morgan national poll carried out in November 2017 showed that more than 80% of Australians in every state supported Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) to allow for better choice at the end of life. This poll reflected support in Western Australia of 88%, and in December 2019 the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2019 was finally passed after nearly 40 years of advocacy by Dying with Dignity WA.
Since then the VAD landscape in Australia has changed dramatically. As at 1 January 2023 every Australian state has passed assisted dying legislation. Some VAD schemes have been in operation for a few years while others are still in the implementation period.
Notwithstanding the impressive progress that has been made in Australia in the last five years, there is still misinformation and distortion in relation to the facts surrounding VAD, and there is no room for complacency.
To ensure that opponents of VAD do not succeed in winding back – or even repealing - the legislation in WA that we have all worked so hard for, we need to know the facts that counter the common arguments raised against it. You may find the following guide useful.
FACT: "PALLIATIVE CARE CANNOT ALLEVIATE ALL SUFFERING..."
Australia has one of the best palliative care systems in the world, and we should be proud of it. But even Palliative Care Australia admits that it “cannot relieve all pain and suffering even with optimal care.” For a small number of patients, suffering at the end of life can be intolerable.
The legalisation of voluntary assisted dying gives patients experiencing such suffering another choice.
FACT: "THE DISABLED WILL NOT BE VULNERABLE..."
Some opponents have suggested that people with disabilities or mental illness will be placed at risk as a result of VAD laws. This is not true. All the legislation in Australia includes strict eligibility criteria and strong safeguards to protect the vulnerable from coercion or abuse. A disabled or mentally-ill person would be eligible for VAD only if he or she satisfied all the eligibility criteria, including the capacity to make an informed choice. Disability of any kind does not of itself make a person eligible under VAD laws in Any jurisdiction in Australia.
Exhaustive, peer-reviewed evidence about how these laws operate overseas has not shown any increased threat to people with a disability, a fact confirmed by leading disability rights groups in those countries. In Australia, VAD is supported by People with Disabilities WA and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations.
FACT: "THE ELDERLY ARE NOT AT RISK OF ABUSE AND COERCION..."
Some opponents have suggested that family members or carers could pressure an elderly patient to request assistance to die, for instance so that they may access an inheritance or the family estate sooner.
It is a sad reality that elder abuse and coercion already exist in our society. Having the regulatory framework provided by voluntary assisted dying laws that come with strict eligibility criteria and strong safeguards will help create a safer environment for these vulnerable people.
Any person who induces someone to request or access VAD commits a crime that carries heavy penalties, including imprisonment. Health practitioner who colluded in such acts would similarly risk prosecution and punishment, and would lose their their licence to practice. .These are serious consequences and in the case of medical practitioners have no conceivable personal gain.
In other jurisdictions where VAD is a lawful end of life option there is no evidence of coercion or pressure being applied to elderly people to access VAD. There is some evidence is of family members trying to persuade a loved one not to access VAD, which may classify as elder abuse of a different kind!
FACT: "SUICIDES DO NOT INCREASE..."
Some opponents have suggested that the legalisation of voluntary assisted dying will lead to an increase in suicides, referred to as 'suicide contagion'. Suicide is entirely distinct from voluntary assisted dying.
Suicide is often an act of desperation where there is no alternative. In the lead up to the VAD debate in Western Australia the head of the WA police union came out in support of voluntary assisted dying for this reason. In his own words: “People experiencing an irreversible deterioration in their health are taking their own lives, often in horrific circumstances. We need a compassionate assisted dying law to give people in certain circumstances a choice to die in a dignified way”.
There is no credible evidence of increased suicide rates as a result of assisted dying laws overseas.
FACT: "CHILDREN ARE NOT AT RISK..."
Opponents of VAD sometimes refer to Belgium, which does have legislation allowing a child in a 'medically futile condition', and who is experiencing constant and unbearable suffering that cannot be alleviated, to request voluntary assisted dying. However, this law carries even greater safeguards, and stricter criteria, than the already strict laws relating to adults. Along with two doctors, a child psychiatrist has to confirm that the child knows what they are requesting. The child’s parents must also participate in, and approve of, the request. Passed into law by a two-thirds majority of the Belgian parliament, this is a recognition that even children can die from illnesses which, in spite of the best treatment, cause terrible suffering. Use of this law is extremely rare.
All the laws in Australia apply only to competent adults.
FACT: "DOCTORS WILL NOT BE FORCED TO COMPLY..."
Voluntary assisted dying is about choice, and this applies to medical professionals as well as to patients. By law, there is no mandatory requirement for any doctor to participate in VAD, and there is a specific conscientious objection exception for anyone who is ethically or morally opposed to voluntary assisted dying. Everyone involved, including the person requesting help and the doctors and nurses involved in the process, has the right to opt out at any time.
FACT: "A MAJORITY OF CHRISTIANS SUPPORT VAD..."
A 2012 Newspoll survey showed that 88% of Anglicans and 77% of Catholics agreed that a doctor should be allowed to meet a request from a hopelessly ill patient for help to die.
The 2013 ABC Vote Compass policy tool found that out of 1.4 million Australians, 75% supported the legalisation of voluntary assisted dying for the terminally ill.
It also provided a breakdown based on religion, and the rate of support among Catholic respondents was 69.8%.
While the Catholic and Anglican Church hierarchies are opposed to voluntary assisted dying, they do not speak for the majority of their parishioners or other people of faith.
FACT: "THE WA VOLUNTARY ASSISTED DYING LAW IS ALREADY OPERATING SAFELY AND EFFECTIVELY"
The Voluntary Assisted Dying law in Western Australia came into effect on 1 July 2021. The first Annual Report 2020-2021 of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Board WA demonstrates that the scheme is working as intended.
Voluntary assisted dying is about a person who knows they will die soon and is suffering in a way that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable. The ‘Year in review’ describes the people who made the choice to end their lives by voluntary assisted dying, the process of voluntary assisted dying and those who played a role in that process.
You can read the first report here - Annual Report 2020-2021 of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Board WA