Last updated February 7, 2019 at 10:39 am
Nationwide reforms to euthanasia laws are coming.
Reforms to assisted dying laws throughout Australia will steadily but surely take place in the coming years, say QUT law experts.
QUT’s Professor Lindy Willmott and Professor Ben White from the Australian Centre for Health Law Research have discussed the status of end-of-life laws across Australia in an article for the Australian Health Review.
Looking at moves nationally and internationally to permit voluntary assisted dying, Professor Willmott says changes to law Australia-wide to permit voluntary assisted dying (VAD) would be a case of “when not if”.
“There is an increased willingness for politicians to contemplate reform which is in keeping with community expectations,” Professor Willmott said.
Between 1993 and 2015 there were 39 separate pieces of legislation introduced to Australian parliaments aimed to legalise VAD. In the past three years, there have been a further seven bills tabled.
Only one of those has been passed, with Victorian Parliament passing legislation in 2017 allowing VAD, which will come into effect mid next year.
“A lot has changed in Australia and globally since the Northern Territory was the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise euthanasia in 1995,” says White.
“Those laws were overturned in 1997 by the Commonwealth using its constitutional powers over Territories.”
The authors write that sustained efforts to change the law to permit VAD are likely to continue.
“Since 2016, a higher percentage of bills have been close to passing. Victoria had broken through a wall with its 2017 legislation to permit an adult with an advanced incurable disease to seek assistance to die and other states are closely watching,” says White.
With Victoria’s breakthrough, Willmott and White expect other states to soon follow suit. However, it remains to be seen whether other states would follow Victoria’s legislation closely, or develop their own.
“There may be political advantages for taking the … ‘follow the leader’ approach,” they write.
In this case, other states would pass similar legislation to Victoria’s conservative approach to VAD, which is focused on providing assistance to a person to die rather than allowing doctors to administer medication, after fulfilling a large number of detailed safeguards and processes. This is seen as a politically expedient approach, with Parliaments thought more likely to accept legislation endorsed by another state.
The authors also propose that states could prepare their own legislation, or base theirs on the Victorian framework but reworked to add or remove elements.
Internationally, parts of Western Europe and North America permit VAD.
Australian scientist David Goodall travelled to Switzerland in May, where he underwent voluntary euthanasia. The 104-year-old’s health and quality of life had deteriorated in previous years, leading to him wishing to end his life peacefully.
Professor Willmott said 37 million Canadians now have voluntary assisted dying as an end-of-life option and almost one in five Americans live in a state where VAD is lawful.
Experience and research from these other countries has also provided a picture of what to expect, say the authors.
“Studies undertaken both in Europe and the US have consistently found that groups generally regarded as vulnerable are not more likely to access VAD.”
“There is also evidence that illegal medical practices are not more likely to occur after the legalisation of VAD.”
Indeed, they conclude that under properly designed VAD regimes, vulnerable people need not be at greater risk.
“It is difficult for Australian politicians to avoid the reality of international developments,” says Wilmott.
“VAD in Australia is ‘a train that has left the station.’ International trends, growing Australian political support… and the weakening of key opposing arguments all point to other states following Victoria’s lead by legalising VAD,” Willmott and White conclude.
The researchers were instrumental in developing QUT’s End of Life Law in Australia to help provide clarity for doctors, their patients and families.