Victorian assisted death conditions, time frame could be widened

TERMINALLY ill Victorians could have up to two years to seek a physician-assisted death, with the Andrews government's advisers contemplating whether to set a longer-than-expected time frame in the euthanasia laws to be introduced this year.

Patients with a broad range of conditions could also end up being eligible to make such requests – such as people with cancer, motor-neurone disease, and heart failure – but those with dementia will not be included under the proposed framework.

Brian Owler chairs the panel looking at how dying with dignity laws would work. Photo: Janie Barrett

Brian Owler chairs the panel looking at how dying with dignity laws would work. Photo: Janie Barrett

Months after Premier Daniel Andrews announced that an assisted dying bill would be put to a conscience vote in the Victorian parliament, an advisory group established by the government has examined some of the controversial issues that will underpin the debate.

In an interim report to be released within days, the group has mostly backed the assisted dying framework proposed last year by a parliamentary committee, which would give Victorian adults access to a lethal pill prescribed by their doctor – provided they have decision-making capacity and are suffering from "a serious and incurable condition and at the end of their life".

However, in the absence of a clear time frame defining what "the end of their life" means, the government's advisory panel is considering a number of options, including six months, 12 months, or 24 months.

"The parliamentary committee proposed that a person should have a disease that was going to end their life within 'weeks and months' and have 'intolerable suffering' – so that's a fairly narrow scope of conditions when you look at other jurisdictions around the world," said taskforce chairman Brian Owler, a former president of the Australian Medical Association.

"But there are a range of conditions that need to be considered because they have different trajectories in terms of people's illnesses. That includes things like motor-neuron disease, but also end-stage heart failure and respiratory failure, as well as the most common group, which of course is cancers at the end stage. We have to look at how all of those conditions might fit into the legislation."

The panel's interim report was based on more than 100 submissions and meetings with about 300 individuals across the state, including doctors, lawyers and police.

While it only summarises the feedback the panel was given (clear recommendations will be made to the government in a final report later this year) it has nonetheless thrashed out some of the critical issues that will underpin the government's legislation.

It is believed the interim report also:

  • Backs giving doctors the right to hold a "conscientious objection" to physician-assisted death – similar to the provisions that allow them to refuse abortions in Victoria.
  • Pushes for medical specialists to have appropriate qualifications before they can help patients die.
  • Rules out people with dementia qualifying for an assisted death because patients must have decision-making capacity to make a request.
  • Raises the idea of criminal sanctions in a bid to ensure there are strict safeguards against exploitation.

The debate over voluntary euthanasia is set to reignite in the lead-up to next year's election, with many MPs at odds over whether to introduce assisted dying in Victoria.

Within cabinet, more than half of Labor's MPs support a shift, including Mr Andrews, who had a change of heart following the death of his father last year.

However others say they will not support the legislation, including Deputy Premier James Merlino, Opposition leader Matthew Guy and DLP crossbencher Rachel Carling-Jenkins.

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