01:26, November 02 284 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-02 01:26:03
Victoria's voluntary assisted dying bill may need amendments to pass upper house

Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying debate has begun in the upper house and support is believed to be on a knife-edge, with the possibility the legislation will only pass with significant amendments.

The debate began with the shadow minister for health, Liberal MP Mary Wooldridge, saying she would vote in favour, ­and insisting that Victoria was “different”. While former prime ministers such as Paul Keating and Tony Abbott have spoken against the law, she said former Victorian premiers from both sides of politics, including Jeff Kennett, Denis Napthine, Steve Bracks, Ted Baillieu and John Cain, all supported voluntary assisted dying legislation.

The proposed laws passed the lower house last month following a marathon debate and despite opposition from many Liberal and National MPs and the Labor deputy premier, James Merlino.

The bill, which was introduced by the government and has the personal support of the health minister, Jill Hennessey, and the premier, Daniel Andrews, was believed by supporters to face an easier passage through the upper house given the number of Greens MPs, Independents and Liberal MPs such as Wooldridge in support.

But numbers have tightened in the past fortnight and it is believed by some MPs spoken to by Guardian Australia that it will not pass without amendments. If amendments do pass, the legislation will return to the lower house for consideration.

Wooldridge urged MPs on Thursday not to support any amendments. The proposed legislation states patients must have a prognosis of 12 months to live at most in order to qualify for voluntary assisted dying, but some MPs want to see this reduced to six months.

Wooldridge shared a story of her sister-in-law with motor neurone disease, a degenerative illness, who spent her last couple of years of life “with only capacity to move her index finger”.

“A six-month time frame does not reflect the trajectory of illness for those with degenerative diseases,” Wooldridge said. “I don’t believe this is about killing a person. The disease ... is already doing that killing. It is about hastening an inevitable death in a humane and compassionate way.”

She added that she supported freedoms and for that reason she commended the bill to the house.

“We can choose who we’re friends with, who we love, if and where we work,” she said. “When it comes to our end of life, our freedoms are more limited. I can refuse medical treatment, refuse food and water and choose to hasten my death, albeit in what may be a slow and drawn-out process. I can choose to commit suicide ... if chosen often violently and alone. I can choose palliative sedation, which may not relieve my suffering.

“What I can’t do is choose the place and time where I die. I cannot choose to be with my family when it occurs. I can not choose that it be effectively painless and quick. I believe Victorians should have that choice.”

Wooldridge’s views pit her against her Liberal colleagues, most of whom do not support the bill. Labor MP Daniel Mulino also spoke to the legislation on Thursday morning, and unlike most of his party colleagues said he did not support it.

He rejected claims that voluntary assisted dying laws would reduce suicides. Statistics from the coroner show that about 50 people in intolerable suffering due to disease take their own lives in Victoria every year.

But Mulino said most of those people would not have qualified for access to the voluntary assisted dying scheme being proposed. He added that it was not worth introducing laws that would give relief to a small number of people while placing vulnerable people, such as the elderly, those being abused and those who believed they were a burden to their carers, at risk.

“My father is a nurse,” Mulino said. “He believes passionately in assisted suicide. I believe this bill will not achieve what [supporters] hope it will. If this bill passes it will no longer be possible for the terminally ill to simply accept that their role is to receive care for as long as necessary. If this bill passes they now have a choice. Their family will know they have a choice. Their carers will know they have a choice. Unfortunately there is an abuse of the vulnerable in our society.

“This is not a bill which adds without taking away.”

Labor MP Jaala Pulford broke down as she spoke about the death of her 13-year-old daughter Sinead in 2014, who died after being diagnosed with cancer. Pulford told the parliament that she had “learned more about death and dying than I ever cared to”.

“Sinead’s death was a good death,” she said.

“When Sinead died she was holding my hand. I was able to tell her how brave she’d been, how loved she was, and how it was okay for her to go now. So I’ve changed my mind [on voluntary assisted dying].”

Pulford voted against Victoria’s last attempt at passing voluntary assisted dying legislation in 2008.

“This bill is different,” Pulford said. “Its scope is narrower, its safeguards are robust. This time it is not difficult at all [to decide how to vote]. Our parliament has an opportunity to demonstrate compassion for those with unendurable suffering.

“And so in memory of those who have died lonely, violent deaths; for those who are experiencing unendurable suffering; and for the family and friends haunted in their grief because they were powerless to help their dying person find comfort, I commend this bill to the house.”

The debate continues.