National MP for Eastern Victoria Region
BY LAST Friday around 2000 people within my electorate of Eastern Victoria had made their point of view on the Voluntary Assisted Dying bill known to me. Of those, 200 were in favour and about 1800 against.
I have been honoured to read and to listen to constituents' personal stories. Even though this is an emotionally charged debate, the majority have been very respectful. Some have provided intimate details of the loss of their loved ones, and I have lived every word of their story and the grief they hold as a result. That is why it is so hard not to be in total agreement with all the sentiments expressed.
Some of my concerns are around the eligibility criteria and the supposed safeguards. The Legislative Council committee recommended that suffering must be enduring and unbearable. The advisory panel substantially watered this down to: … suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the patient deems tolerable …
and stated that suffering can be mental anguish and social suffering. That is, it need not be physical pain. The panel report quotes: “the panel affirms that suffering should be judged by the person”.
I am alarmed that suffering is to be assessed solely by the patient, and may have psychological, social and spiritual aspects as much as physical symptoms such as pain.
People who have a life-threatening illness often feel like a burden to their family and community. They often apologise for the inconvenience they are imposing. There is real potential for someone to feel pressure and to seek a way out.
Coercion is a very subtle thing. It cannot be measured, but it can be felt. It is our job to pass legislation that protects the most vulnerable people: the aged, the disabled and the ill. It is almost impossible to establish coercion and elder abuse. Often the patient is dead, and even if there is a case for coercion to be made the evidence is lost.
In terms of the disease being incurable, a person could make themselves eligible for assisted suicide by refusing treatment for a manageable disease. People will say this is highly unlikely, but there is the potential, and we must try to protect the vulnerable, the aged, the disabled and the ill.
The bill can authorise assisted dying on a wide range of diseases with much lower severity and incapacitation than motor neurone disease (MND) or Huntington's disease.
The Legal and Social Issues Committee end-of-life choices report noted that there were major gaps in the quality and provision of palliative care in Victoria and, of particular relevance to my constituents, that the services are not easily accessible for people in country Victoria.
The number of people in Central Gippsland's palliative care programs has doubled in the last five years. District nursing staff do a fantastic job, but they are truly overstretched. Issues around accessing continuity of doctor service and accessibility to pain relief medications on weekends have been raised with me. Latrobe Community Health Service staff highlighted the need for after-hours availability of doctors to facilitate dying at home and the potential for an additional professional such as a second nurse practitioner.
I also have concerns in relation to the 12-month time frame for Victorians to request assisted dying. Determining how long a person has to live is not an exact science. The Oregon model is based on six months, not 12 months. This is a point that has been raised over and over again with me.
I am concerned about the uncertainty of the drugs that will be used. We are being asked to take a giant leap of faith in simply handing over control to an implemented task force to research and devise a concoction of drugs. We have no information about the efficacy of the drug, the toxicity, the administration or how it will be trialled, because even the government does not know what it will be.
The model relies on self-reporting and self-administration, and I have concerns about this. There are definite dangers to what could happen to any person who is in that home and can find the key. One scenario that concerns me is the potential for district nurses to be forced into administering the lethal drug against their will.
We all have life experience. Twenty-five years ago I lost my father to cancer. He was a very fit man, he could run up hills, he was a farmer of 50 years and he was about 60 or 61 and was still a ball of muscle. For some reason he was not diagnosed for months and months, until finally the doctor sent him off for a gastroscopy for a suspected ulcer. That specialist said to him, 'Get to Cabrini this afternoon'. He said, 'I can't, I have to go home and milk the cows'. He went home and milked the cows for the very last time that night, went to Cabrini the next day and was opened up. The cancer was everywhere – he was told he had three months to live.
He packed up his home of about 55 years, sold the farm, moved Mum into Leongatha where she would be safe and cared for, gave the horse away, et cetera. He had chemotherapy, and then later on in Freemasons he had radiation therapy, and we were with him all the way. Toward the end he went back to Leongatha and went home, and in truth it was a horrendous time. My mother still cries if we bring it up.
Palliative care has improved since that point, but there is still a long, long way to go.
At no stage did he ask, “Please, help me to die”. He wanted to stay and grapple as much life as he could. Whether that has coloured me or not, I certainly understand that there are other people whose fathers may say, “I need to go. Let me find a way to go”. Palliative care still has many, many — particularly in the country — ways to improve.
I believe that there are too many situations in relation to the safeguards. The autonomy of the individual must be measured against the irretrievable alteration of society. There is no going back once Victoria has committed to this path, and I am concerned that the safeguards cannot perform their intent. I will be opposing the bill, and I will consider amendments as they come through.
MPs in the Upper House last night voted 22-18 in favour of a second reading of the bill. Debate on amendments will start on November 14 when MPs are next in Parliament, with several MPs seeking a reduction in the life expectancy time limit from 12 to six months.
This one’s for Ray: Bass MP Brian Paynter on why he supports the legislation.
Life and death: MP for Eastern Victoria Harriet Shing on her support for voluntary assisted dying.