WA death debate to intensify as voluntary assisted dying report handed down

Big decision: Australian Medical Association WA president Dr Omar Khorshid, Premier Mark McGowan and West Australian health minister Roger Cook have had their say on potential voluntary assisted dying laws. Photos: Supplied.
Big decision: Australian Medical Association WA president Dr Omar Khorshid, Premier Mark McGowan and West Australian health minister Roger Cook have had their say on potential voluntary assisted dying laws. Photos: Supplied.

Western Australia is one step closer to adopting euthanasia laws, with a final report from an expert panel presented in state parliament last week.

Voluntary assisted dying has been a hot topic in WA and across Australia in recent years, with Victoria last month passing legislation allowing certain residents more freedom over how they die.

A Ministerial Expert Panel, chaired by Malcolm McCusker QC, was formed last year to consider the views and opinions of the community.

Over the last 12 months the panel has held public consultations across WA, with 867 people attending the sessions and a further 541 providing written submissions.

The panel's final report has now been handed down and includes 31 recommendations for the proposed legislation, including safeguards over how it is applied.

The state government will now draft legislation in relation to voluntary assisted dying, before MPs are given freedom to vote on the potential new laws.

Premier Mark McGowan said he supported a form of voluntary assisted dying and the panel should be commended for its thorough report.

"I personally am supportive but it's a conscious vote for every MP and I urge every MP to look at the facts and listen to the arguments," he said.

"It's an important debate and it's raised with me by many people across the community who have had their parents or loved one pass away in agony and they want something done, and that's what this is about.

"This is about ensuring for those people in their last days, weeks or months of life, if they're suffering and terminally ill, they can make their own decision.

"I do hope that all parties allow for a genuinely free vote for their members. We certainly are and I'd urge all parties to vote in accordance to their own beliefs and their own experience."

Health minister Roger Cook said the panel's report was the result of hard work and dedication.

"They have listened to wide-ranging community views on this important and significant issue and have reviewed a broad range of research, both from Australia and overseas," he said.

"The government will now consider the expert panel's report and recommendations as we begin the next phase in the introduction of a bill to legalise voluntary assisted dying. The report is a vital component in the quest to draft compassionate and safe legislation.

"There is consistent and widespread community support for voluntary assisted dying reform and the government is committed to ensuring the highest quality end-of-life choices and palliative care for all Western Australians.

"Personally I support the concept of voluntary assisted dying in certain circumstances and with specific safeguards - as such I plan to use my conscience vote to support the legislation."

End of life choices: Western Australia is one step closer to adopting voluntary assisted dying laws after a final report from the Ministerial Expert Panel was handed down last week. Photo: Shutterstock.

End of life choices: Western Australia is one step closer to adopting voluntary assisted dying laws after a final report from the Ministerial Expert Panel was handed down last week. Photo: Shutterstock.

While the eventual decision will be made by MPs when the draft legislation reaches parliament later this year, plenty of lobbying and opinions have been expressed throughout the process.

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Nursing Federation have both released statements suggesting their members are supportive of some sort of legislation.

However, the Australian Medical Association WA (AMA WA), which represents medical practitioners and students, has been a vocal opponent to voluntary assisted dying since the start of the process.

President Dr Omar Khorshid said while the final decision would rest with parliamentarians, it was AMA WA's responsibility to provide as much information as possible to help this process.

"The AMA is sticking to its guns because it is the medical profession's job to inform the public and politicians of the ethics and the really important things we should be thinking about," he said.

"Also, we must consider the practical realities of crossing the line - instead of the medical profession focusing on saving lives and reducing suffering, to introducing this new concept where doctors may actually be ending someone's life.

"The AMA remains very concerned about crossing the line into euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

"But, ultimately, this is a decision for our parliamentarians to make on our behalf.

"It is certainly our role to stand up for the medical profession and protect the vulnerable in the community - and we will continue to do that.

"The key step is for the parliamentarians to look at the actual legislation, the safeguards and what the impact is going to be on our society.

"We are concerned that the public's support for voluntary assisted dying is based on misinformation in campaigns by well-resourced groups and people are not aware of the difficulties and the dangers we face as a society."

On the other side of the coin, Dying With Dignity WA has been campaigning since 1984 for legislation providing the freedom for a person to choose to end their life if they are in suffering.

President Steve Walker welcomed the final report and said it was a significant milestone.

"It has been an extremely rigorous process to get to this stage," he said.

"It is clear the panel has incorporated the feedback from their consultations with key stakeholders, such as the medical community and the public, in the development of the safeguards outlined in this report.

"Surveys have consistently shown overwhelming public support for greater choice at the end of life, with well over 80 per cent of Western Australians supporting the introduction of voluntary assisted dying legislation.

"We look forward to seeing legislation introduced into parliament in the latter half of this year and to an open and respectful debate.

"We trust that members of parliament voting on this important legislation will reflect the views of the community and legislate for a safe and compassionate voluntary assisted dying law.

"Dying With Dignity WA will continue to advocate for more end-of-life choices, including calling for a voluntary assisted dying law, voicing support for increased palliative care funding, and assisting in greater promotion of advance health directives."

The expert panel's final report and more information can be found at www.health.wa.gov.au/voluntaryassisteddying.