As Victorian MPs debate a landmark and controversial assisted dying bill, Deakin Law School’s health law expert Dr Neera Bhatia predicts the proposed legislation is likely to be one of most conservative in the world.
A research specialist in health law, ethics and end-of-life decision making, Dr Bhatia says that compared to other developed nations, Australia is a conservative nation with a long history of failed assisted dying bills.
‘In addition to our lack of progression on other contemporary issues, this is the closest Victoria has been to assisting the incurably ill in being able to die with dignity,’ she explains.
Currently under fierce debate (and facing up to 150 amendments) in the Victorian Parliament, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill contains a raft of precautions including: that patients be resident in Victoria, aged over 18, of sound mind, expected to die within 12 months and suffering in a way that ‘cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable’.
‘These conditions are considerably restrictive,’ says Dr Bhatia. ‘Further, any doctors, relatives or friends who administer a lethal dose against the rules of a special permit could be jailed for life under one of more than 60 safeguards.’
The vexed issue of assisted dying is a decades-long debate in Australia that continues to polarise the public, politicians and health practitioners.
While some opponents are demanding even greater safeguards for the vulnerable, others are advocating for increased funding and focus on palliative care.
However Dr Bhatia says that even with the best palliative care on offer, it must be questioned whether this would simply prolong an inevitable death.
‘Even with the most sophisticated palliative care facilities, can it ever alleviate the pain and suffering of a patient?’ she asks.
With the bill facing strong social and political hurdles, Dr Bhatia says it would be tragedy for the debate to ‘come so far to no avail’ and suspects that further restrictive amendments will be included.
‘Dependant on these, it could potentially result in the assisted dying bill (legislation if passed) being even more restrictive and almost inaccessible to individuals,’ she says.
If this occurs Dr Bhatia expects Victoria’s assisted dying debate to be an ongoing one.
‘It means that public and political advocacy will continue. Only its direction will somewhat shift towards amending the legislation (if passed) to make it less restrictive. At this stage, only time will tell.’