What next for dying with dignity?

He’s the progressive premier whose reforms include same-sex adoption, decriminalising medicinal cannabis and putting safe access zones around abortion clinics. But this week, Daniel Andrews and his government will address what could arguably be their toughest social policy challenge yet: dying with dignity.

• What’s happening?

Put simply, the government has until Thursday [8 December] to respond to a parliamentary report that recommends Victoria legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill people.

That report, by the bipartisan Social and Legal Issues Committee, was based on a 10-month inquiry, an overseas tour of assisted dying ré­gimes, and more than 1300 submissions, most of which favoured reform.

The government now has a number of options: reject the committee’s recommendation; accept it and introduce legislation; accept it in principle but refer it to an agency (such as the Law Reform Commission) to work out the details; or deal with it through a private member’s bill (the Greens are already preparing one in case the government doesn’t act).

• So does this mean Victoria could become the first Australian state to legalise euthanasia?

Not quite. It’s important to note that the committee’s recommendation doesn’t actually call for voluntary euthanasia, which involves ending another person’s life to relieve their suffering. Instead, it specifically suggests a new “assisted dying” framework, whereby a doctor could prescribe a lethal drug that would be taken by the patient.

The key difference is self-administration. The only exception to the rule would be in cases when people were physically unable to take a lethal drug, in which case, a doctor could assist.

• But are there enough safeguards?

The model proposed by the committee has many; whether it’s enough is a matter of opinion.

Firstly, a patient must be a permanent adult resident of Victoria, have a “serious and incurable condition”, and be in the final weeks or months of their life.

They must also have decision-making capacity (which rules out people with dementia and Alzheimer’s), and the request must be approved by a primary doctor and an independent secondary doctor. For further oversight, a new End of Life Commission has also been proposed, along with an End of Life Review Board, which would examine each case and ensure doctors have complied with their requirements.

• So what are the chances the Andrews government will change the law?

Not bad. Given the public momentum and Labor’s record of progressive reform in Victoria, some believe the time is now.

It’s no coincidence, either, that soon after the report was tabled, more than half of cabinet’s 22 ministers lined up to openly declare their in-principle support for a shift, including Health Minister Jill Hennessy, Treasurer Tim Pallas and Attorney-General Martin Pakula.

All seven Green MPs and the Sex Party’s Fiona Patten also want reform, along with a number of Liberals.

This is worth noting, given that any future bill would ultimately be decided on a conscience vote in the 88-member lower house and the 40-member upper house.

• But hasn’t the Victorian Parliament tried - and failed – to deal with this already?

Correct. Eight years ago, Greens MP Colleen Hartland introduced a private member’s bill to legalise physician-assisted death, but it was immediately voted down in the upper house: 25 votes to 13.

But a lot has changed since then, including community momentum, with some polls now suggesting that up to 70 per cent of Australians want voluntary euthanasia legalised.

That’s not to say the issue won’t be fiercely contested again: it will be, particularly among religious groups, some sections of the medical community and conservative members of parliament.

Labor also has some members who would likely vote against a bill, particularly those aligned with the Catholic-based “shoppies” union (parliamentary secretary Daniel Mulino, for instance, sat on the committee but wrote his own “minority report” raising concerns about appropriate safeguards).

• What about Andrews? What does he think?

Therein lies the million-dollar question.

At a Melbourne Press Club lunch in June last year, I asked the Premier whether he supported voluntary euthanasia, and his position was clear.

“I don’t support, at this stage . . . making the sort of change that some people would like to make, but I do readily acknowledge that there is certainly more momentum, and there is perhaps more public support for this change than there has ever been,” Andrews said at the time.

But since then, his position has noticeably softened in the wake of his father’s death from cancer.

“If you search your conscience, and you search your own personal experience, I think more and more Victorians are coming to the conclusion that we are not giving a dignified end, we are not giving the support, the love and care that every Victorian should be entitled to in their final moments,” he said in September.

Thursday is deadline day. Watch this space.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/explainer-the-push-towards-a-dyingwith...