NSW Legalises Voluntary Assisted Dying

Last Friday, NSW became the final Australian state to legalise voluntary assisted dying (VAD). Patients in NSW with terminal diagnoses will now be able to choose a death with dignity.

Last week’s VAD bill was introduced to NSW parliament by independent MP Alex Greenwich, but has had widespread cross-party support. 28 members of parliament and members of the legislative council co-sponsored the bill, comprising independents and representatives from all parties.

Parliamentary support for VAD reflects the broader sentiment of the NSW public. A 2021 survey by the Sydney Morning Herald showed close to two-thirds of NSW voters support VAD and only 11 per cent oppose it. The ABC reports over half of older NSW residents have said they’ve considered VAD for themselves.

Still, VAD has faced heavy opposition from religious sectors of society and government. Although both major parties allowed a conscience vote on the bill, both Liberal Premier Dominic Perrottet and opposition leader Chris Minns indicated last year they don’t support VAD – presumably due to their Catholic beliefs.

Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop described the legislation as “disturbing”, and major religious healthcare providers Catholic Health Australia, Anglicare and Hammond Care wrote an open letter arguing for religious organisations to be exempt from participating in VAD.

States have followed in Victoria’s footsteps to legalise VAD across the country. Territories are denied the right to make this decision themselves, and are reliant on federal policy.

A motion to legalise VAD was originally introduced by Nationals MP Trevor Khan in 2017, but was defeated at the time. This time around, Greenwich and his supporters were frustrated by almost one hundred amendments proposed by opponents in the Upper House.

“All of a sudden we’re seeing amendments to deny access to people to voluntary assisted dying in their home if their home is in aged care,” Greenwich remarked, in reference to one amendment that sought exemptions for aged care providers. “That is cruel and unnecessary.”

The Upper House debated the amendments for 10 hours last week, before a final vote of 23 to 15 pushed the bill through.

Who will be eligible for VAD in NSW?

Under the new legislation, to be eligible for VAD in NSW a patient have been diagnosed with a medical condition that is advanced, progressive, and terminal. Their life expectancy must be 6 months or less, or 12 months if the condition is neurodegenerative.

The request for VAD must be made voluntarily, and must be ‘enduring’. After such a request is made, the patient will be assessed for eligibility by two medical practitioners. The patient may choose to either self-administer the VAD substance, or have it administered by a professional. VAD must not be brought up by healthcare workers unless in the context of a broader discussion of the patient’s palliative care and outcomes.

These regulations are broadly similar to those in place in other states, although in Victoria and South Australia healthcare workers can only bring up VAD if explicitly asked by a patient.

VAD is not currently legal in either of Australia’s territories, but Greenwich says federal policies should be next, to pave the way for VAD in the Northern Territory and ACT.

“It’s incumbent on our colleagues, and federal parliament, to pass laws to allow the territories to be able to legislate for this compassionate law reform.”

Cover photo by Gert Stockmans on Unsplash.

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