Legalising voluntary euthanasia, or voluntary assisted dying, is a hot topic in New South Wales. A private member's draft bill was recently introduced and parliamentary debate is set for later in 2021.

NSW has been slower than other Australian states in legalising euthanasia. Victoria has had its Voluntary Assisted Dying Act since 2019 and similar legislation in Western Australia came into effect on 1 July 2021. (See Voluntary Assisted Dying comes into effect in Western Australia, WA Health, July 2021.)

Tasmania and South Australia have also recently passed similar legislation, but their voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws will not come into force until an extensive education program is completed and an authorising structure set up.

New NSW voluntary euthanasia bill modelled on WA legislation

This is the third attempt to get voluntary assisted dying legislation approved in the NSW parliament after it was rejected in 2013, and the following Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 failed by just one vote.

Sydney independent MP Alex Greenwich says polls show 80 per cent of Australians support legalised VAD. He has modelled his private member's draft bill on the WA euthanasia legislation.

Under the new WA Voluntary Assisted Dying Act, terminally ill adults with a condition causing pain and "intolerable suffering", with less than six months to live (12 months for a neurodegenerative condition), will be able to take a drug to end their lives.

Key eligibility requirements for euthanasia in WA

To be eligible for voluntary euthanasia in WA, the patient must have lived there for at least 12 months. They must make two verbal requests and one written request to eligible officials. The written request has to be approved by two medical practitioners.

The patient must have decision making capacity and understand the procedures involved. They can withdraw at any time.

While self-administration is the preferred method, a patient can choose a doctor to administer the VAD drug.

Health care workers can't initiate discussion of VAD with the patient, but can provide information at the patient's request. However, they must also provide information about alternative treatments, and they can refuse to take part on conscientious grounds.

NSW residents who assist with euthanasia currently face jail time

In NSW, it is a criminal offence for either a doctor or a non-medical person to assist in euthanasia and suicide.

A person assisting voluntary euthanasia in NSW can be prosecuted for murder and sent to jail for life under section 18 of the NSW Crimes Act. Section 31C in the Act says aiding a suicide carries a maximum 10 years jail.

Victorian review finds access to scheme needs significant improvement

The Victorian legislation has been in operation for two years and there has been some criticism that it is too difficult for people to become eligible for assisted dying. (See It's been two years since Victoria introduced assisted dying laws, so how well are they working?, ABC News, May 2021.)

The Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board reported that 328 patients died under the scheme in the first 18 months of its operation, but a third of applicants died during the approval process before the drug could be administered. (See Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board: report of operations - July to December 2020, APO, March 2021.)

Painful terminal illness, not disability or mental illness

All the state euthanasia laws say that a person is not eligible for voluntary euthanasia if they merely have a disability or are diagnosed with a mental illness. They must have a painful terminal condition.

Many people suffering from painful incurable terminal disease and their families and friends will be anxious to see euthanasia finally made legal in NSW.

There is no point in prolonging suffering, and there are plenty of qualifications in the proposed laws to ensure that anyone who has a conscientious objection need not take part.

Michael McHugh
Estates and probate
Stacks Law Firm

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