Co-sponsored by former Labor premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Cassie O’Connor, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (2016) would have enabled Tasmanian adults to gain access to a lethal drug if they were judged competent and had an eligible medical condition.
Under the proposed safeguards, access would also have required a diagnosis by a specialist which was signed off by two independent doctors.
Following several hours of debate, Members of the House of Assembly voted 18-6 against the Bill with two Greens, three Labor and one Liberal MPs voting in favour. All parties allowed a conscience vote.
Three years ago dying with dignity legislation – which would have allowed terminally ill Tasmanians to end their lives 10 days after making three requests to their doctor – failed narrowly, 13-11, in the Lower House.
In opening the debate yesterday, Ms Giddings called for understanding from the broader community into the pain and suffering experienced by those who sought to end their lives.
“The fact is that these patients are suffering intolerable pain that cannot be relieved, and their families are being left with the stressful memories of their loved one’s dying experience,” she said.
“Yet the law as it is gives them no choice to end their suffering and pain.”
Ms Giddings said there were hundreds of stories of people taking their own lives because they could no longer endure their pain and suffering.
She said such people were demanding courage, compassion and leadership on the sensitive issue from their politicians.
“People want a choice to be helped to die. We have, through this Bill, an opportunity to provide them with that choice,” she told Parliament.
However, Health Minister Michael Ferguson said he did not believe it was possible to come up with failsafe legislation.
Labor leader and Bill supporter Rebecca White said Parliament had a responsibility to alleviate suffering and provide dignity and peace to sufferers.
“Individuals are the owners of their own bodies and should be allowed to make decisions about their own death,” she said.
“The conditions set out in this Bill for eligibility to access an assisted death are robust and they do protect against misuse.”
Liberal premier Will Hodgman – who voted against the Bill – said he expected the issue would continue to be debated despite the outcome last night. He vowed to remain a contributor in the debate.
“A future parliament might be able to consider a Bill that more effectively and safely provides for voluntary assisted dying,” he said.
Mr Hodgman said it was a confronting and challenging issue.
“I have no fear in saying that I am personally very confronted by it and heavily conflicted,” he said
“I am concerned about the nature of assisted dying being available to those with a non-terminal illness and those of a young age. I remain concerned at the risk of those vulnerable.
“Protection for these people cannot be guaranteed by this legislation. It is easy in theory but a lot less so in practice.”
Hundreds of people rallied on the lawns of Parliament House yesterday in support of the legislation, which was opposed by the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Medical Association.
In response to a discussion paper associated with the 2013 Tasmanian Bill, synod liaison Minister Carol Bennett said the Church did not have a position on assisted dying and acknowledged that there was a divergence of views within the community, including among Church members.
“What must be remembered is that we are all currently operating in an unregulated environment (when it comes to assisted dying) and that carries risks for those in the medical profession as well as vulnerable people in society,” Ms Bennett said.
A Presbytery Standing Committee submission to the 2013 discussion paper stated: “We wish to re-iterate the position of many members of the Uniting Church in Tasmania that they would oppose any form of voluntary assisted dying. They do so in the sincere belief that life is the sacred gift of God…However, there are others in our church who, equally sincerely, believe that love should be our guiding principle… and that no one should be forced to endure excruciating and long-term pain.”
Ms Bennett said the Uniting Church actively supported the provision of high quality palliative services and the need for a ‘good death’, where a person’s spiritual needs were considered as well as their physical needs.
An inquiry into end of life choices in Victoria recommended that the Parliament pass voluntary assisted dying laws and the Victorian Labor Government is expected to introduce legislation this year. The JIM Unit will be pulling together a consultation paper which contains theological reflections as well as some background as to the draft legislation that will be tabled in the Victorian Parliament in the second half of 2017.
It is hoped that the resource may be used widely within the Synod, as the basis of consultations, conversations and feedback.
Image: Flickr/Alberto Biscalchin