WA Government Introduces Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill Into Parliament

Monday 19 August 2019 @ 10.45 a.m. | Judiciary, Legal Profession & Procedure | Legal Research

On Wednesday 7 August 2019, the WA Minister for Health Roger Cook introduced the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2019 (the Bill) into the WA Parliament. The broad purposes of the Bill are:

  • to provide for and regulate access to voluntary assisted dying;
  • to establish the Voluntary Assisted Dying Board; and
  • to make consequential amendments to other Acts.

Under the proposed laws, a terminally ill Western Australian could take a drug to end their own lives, or ask a doctor to do it for them. According to WA Premier Mark McGowan's statement in a media release dated 6 August 2019, Labor MPs will be given a "conscience vote" at the end of the legislative debate on the issue, with the debate being scheduled for the remainder of the 2019 Parliamentary year.

The Bill follows on from two major reports, both of which included significant consultation across WA. These were:

In his media release the Premier indicated that:

"[the] Expert Panel's recommendations, as well as consultation with Government agencies and other key stakeholders, were considered in the drafting of safe and compassionate legislation that is appropriate to Western Australia."

The Bill is said to follow on "the biggest public and community consultation ever undertaken by WA Health". Further, experience in jurisdictions where similar laws exist was examined, including the recently enacted Victorian legislation, which came into force in June 2019.

In his media release, the Premier also said the Report recommendations that were finally supported in the legislation:

". . . are those that can be safely and practically implemented in a culturally diverse and geographically large state like WA, and where possible, consistency with the Victorian legislation has been maintained".

The final Bill includes 102 safeguards that are stringent measures to ensure safe and workable legislation.

How the WA Legislation Will Work

Under the proposed law, any adult Australian citizen or permanent resident, who has been a resident of WA for at least one year, will be eligible to apply.  They must have an illness or medical condition that is advanced and will "on the balance of probabilities" cause their death within six months or 12 months, if it is a neurodegenerative condition. The condition must also be one that is causing suffering that cannot be relieved in a tolerable manner, and would also need to be causing suffering to the person that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person considers tolerable.

The request and assessment process in the proposed laws requires three requests by the patient, including two verbal requests with a written declaration in between that must be witnessed by two independent people. There must be a minimum of two independent medical assessments by two doctors and palliative care and treatment options available to the patient and the likely outcomes of that care and treatment are among a list of rigorous assessment measures and information included in the medical assessment phase. There would be a minimum of nine days between the initial request and final approval and the choice of lethal medication would be a clinical decision from an approved list of drugs. Self-administration would be the preferred method, but a patient could choose for a medical practitioner to administer the drug - a departure from the Victorian legislation's approach where a doctor can only administer the drug if a patient is physically incapable of doing so.

Another difference between the WA and Victorian legislation is that a medical practitioner would not be prohibited from starting a conversation with a patient about accessing the voluntary assisted dying regime.

One recommendation of the expert panel that was rejected by the WA Government, was that a nurse practitioner be the second medical professional authorised to sign off on access to the regime, in place of a doctor, a recommendation intended to address the scarcity of doctors in rural and remote WA. Instead the Bill allows for patients to access doctors by teleconference.

Further, as part of the new laws implementation a new statutory board is to be formed to " ensure proper adherence to the Bill [new law] and have a monitoring and advisory role on matters related to voluntary assisted dying." As well new criminal offences are to be established to prevent patients from being coerced into accessing the regime.

Reaction and Comment

The ABC News reports that Australian Medical Association (AMA) of WA opposes the proposed voluntary assisted dying laws, claiming the WA Government has rushed the process. It reports the AMA of WA president Andrew Miller as saying:

"Currently in WA it can be difficult to get out of an ambulance into a hospital because of ambulance ramping, it can be difficult to get can cancer surgery in less than 30 days, . . . And now what they're proposing is you can be dead within 10 days of seeing a euthanasia doctor and getting only one other opinion."

The ABC News also reports that the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is set to campaign against the Bill because it would create pressure on the terminally ill to access it simply by its existence. According to ACL WA state director Peter Abetz: "Because nobody wants to be a burden to their loved ones, the mere availability of it [voluntary assisted dying] creates a subtle pressure to access it, . . ."

The WA Health Minister is reported as saying the Bill, with it's large number of safeguards, was cautious and compassionate.

"This is not a question between life and death. This is about the timing and nature of someone's death, . . . Death is inevitable and this legislation will provide them with choice, compassion and understanding. . . The Government has weighed up the expert panel’s recommendations and the advice of other key stakeholders to draft safe and compassionate WA appropriate legislation which is in step with prevailing community views."

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