QUEENSLAND is on a precarious path to legalise euthanasia after Labor’s election win.
Premier Annastacia Palaczszuk, returned to office after gaining a majority of seats at the October 31 poll, is promising to fast-track voluntary assisted dying legislation and allow MPs a conscience vote in state parliament next February.
Making euthanasia a priority issue surprised many Queenslanders including church leaders who said the move was rushed and deeply disappointing, especially when it meant the Queensland Law Reform Commission would be forced to bring forward its review of draft euthanasia laws originally scheduled for March 2021.
“It’s a strange contradiction that euthanasia and shut borders seem to be the platforms this Government is taking to the electorate – one to jeopardise life and the other to protect life,” Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in response to the Premier’s euthanasia pitch.
Townsville Bishop Tim Harris added to the voice of Queensland Church leaders by criticising the Premier for “playing with people’s emotions”.
“Something as significant as VAD needs to be thought carefully through, examined and that’s what I thought the Government was going to do – in fact she (Premier Palaszczuk) talked about getting it right – well I don’t think she’s got it right,” he said before the election.
Ms Palaszczuk appears set to push forward voluntary assisted dying legislation in her first 100 days of a new political term.
Euthanasia is already legal in Victoria, has been approved by Western Australia’s parliament to be enacted in 2021, and could be put to a parliamentary vote in Tasmania by the end of this year.
In New Zealand a referendum on an End of Life Choice Act was held alongside the 2020 general election, and a majority “yes” vote means euthanasia will be legal there in 12 months.
“The very presence of the option of euthanasia will present as a burden and a pressure for many people and families,” the ethics expert for the New Zealand Catholic bishops Dr John Kleinsman said.
“The introduction of assisted death will have a huge impact on all those who work with the dying – doctors, nurses and other health carers, as well as chaplains, priests and lay ministers.
“Among the questions raised will be ones about the provision of the sacraments at the end of life, and the impact on funeral celebrations.”
Dr Kleinsman said the New Zealand law had no requirement for palliative care, no mandatory cooling off period, no requirement for independent witnesses, and lacked effective processes for detecting whether people might be opting for a premature death because of pressure, whether as a result of their own internal feelings of being a burden, or because of external pressures.
“This result goes against the tide of opinion worldwide with 33 jurisdictions around the world having rejected similar laws in the last five years, including the UK and Scotland, because of the risks posed for vulnerable people,” he said.
“It will only be a matter of time before our MPs come under pressure to broaden the law even more – that is what has happened with these laws overseas, and why would it be any different here? This law puts us on a very dangerous path, and today is just the start.”
In Queensland, the pathway to voluntary assisted dying legislation included an inquiry into end-of-life care including a process of public consultation about euthanasia, improving the availability of palliative care and conditions in aged-care facilities.
A Queensland bishops’ election statement called for the Government to provide better funding and resourcing for palliative care so all Queenslanders have access, not just the few.
“Access to palliative care for older Queenslanders receiving aged care, especially in regional and rural settings, is a critical area of need,” the statement said.
The Premier has promised $171 million for palliative care funding – although doctors, health professionals and carers say far more is needed to make palliative care available across the state.
Archbishop Coleridge said he favoured a “care first” approach of high-quality palliative care, respect for patient autonomy, preservation of personal dignity and a peaceful end to life.
“Nobody is morally compelled to suffer unbearable pain, nobody should feel like a burden and nobody should feel that their life is worthless,” he said during the Queensland election campaign.
“But it’s every Queenslander’s human right to have equal access to good quality palliative care before parliament considers a policy default to euthanasia.
“It is certainly not something to be rushed, least of all at a time like this when suicide is a national problem.”