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Queensland parliamentary committee recommends legalising voluntary assisted dying

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Death culture: Voluntary Assisted Dying laws would be accessible to people with advanced terminal medical conditions who are aged over 18, however, any legislation is unlikely to gain immediate political traction due to the overwhelming COVID-19 crisis.

A LONG-running parliamentary committee has recommended Queensland legalise voluntary assisted dying.

Support for VAD is contained in a Queensland parliamentary health committee report examining end-of-life issues, tabled on March 31.

It drew immediate condemnation from Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, who, together with other faith leaders in Queensland stridently oppose VAD – a form euthanasia.

“The Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations on euthanasia come as no surprise, given the cultural tide of this time and the resources invested by the supporters of physician-assisted suicide,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“But there is a dark irony that these recommendations appear at a time when the COVID-19 crisis is casting the shadow of death across the planet; and with these recommendations and any legislation that may follow from them that shadow grows darker.

Pro-life group Cherish Life Queensland said in the midst of a pandemic the Queensland Government needed to be “fully focused on saving lives, not taking them”.

VAD laws would be accessible to people with advanced terminal medical conditions who are aged over 18, however, any legislation is unlikely to gain immediate political traction due to the overwhelming COVID-19 crisis.

“Our parliament can now consider and debate whether to legislate for a voluntary assisted dying scheme in Queensland based upon the recommendations in this report,” committee chair Aaron Harper wrote in the report.

“I would like to state upfront that this report reflects the views of the majority of Queenslanders who came before us, made thousands of submissions and often at times brought committee members to tears, reflecting the deeply personal, tragic stories of seeing loved ones suffer at end of life.

“We also heard divergent views from those who oppose voluntary assisted dying, and their reasons have been reflected in this report.

The parliamentary committee spent 15 months travelling throughout Queensland canvassing views from medical experts, right-to-die advocates, religious groups and the general public.

Archbishop Coleridge said the report was tabled at a time when suicide rates in Australia had reached an alarming level.

“Now it is proposed that suicide become an acceptable option in law, and one wonders what signal this sends,” he said.

The final report recommends that “to be eligible to access voluntary assisted dying (VAD), a person must be diagnosed by a medical practitioner as having an advanced and progressive terminal, chronic or neurodegenerative medical condition that cannot be alleviated in a manner acceptable to the person, and that the condition will cause death”.

Speaking out: Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations on euthanasia came as no surprise, given the cultural tide of this time and the resources invested by the supporters of physician-assisted suicide.

Access to VAD would be limited to people with “decision-making capacity”, and would be require two medical practitioners to make assessments before allowing VAD to proceed.

Medication would be able to be administered by the patient or doctor. The doctor would make that decision.

The report recommends people seeking access to the scheme should not have to undertake counselling first, and choosing to die in this way would not void life insurance, funeral or health insurance.

Similar to existing laws in Victoria, a VAD scheme in Queensland would include a three-year review period to ensure the legislation was working as expected.

As well as considering VAD, the report made dozens of recommendations based on the poor state of aged and palliative care available – making it clear that aged care in Queensland is inadequate and needs an overhaul.

In total, the parliamentary health committee accepted 4719 written submissions and conducted, 34 public and private hearings and briefings, and heard evidence from 502 invited witnesses.

Importantly, the committee report also highlighted the lack of adequate palliative care in Queensland, that Archbishop Coleridge and other faith leaders identified as critical in the end-of-life debate.

“It also remains to be seen whether this whole process will lead to greater investment in the palliative care resources which Queensland badly needs,” he said.

“It also remains to be seen whether the State Government will be sensitive to lesser heard voices, like the voice of the Indigenous peoples, who may lack the political and economic clout of others but who have a word to speak to us all on a matter such as this.”

Leading palliative care doctors told the inquiry palliative care was considered an optional extra as Queensland Health ignored its own staffing guidelines and refused to hold Hospital and Health Services to account.

The committee heard that regional Queensland had just one palliative care specialist when it should have  eight, and that nurses in aged care homes have no palliative care training.

Boosting palliative care resources is identified as critical, including provision of more regional services and training for personal care workers in residential aged care facilities.

Archbishop Coleridge said it was unlikely any VAD legislation was introduced into the current parliament, “and perhaps even the parliaments that follow”.

“That may give Queenslanders a chance to think in deeper and more reasonable ways about the issues at stake in this debate,” he said.

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