Australia’s only euthanasia laws to start

VOLUNTARY euthanasia will be legal in Australia for the first time in more than two decades, with controversial new laws due to be enacted in Victoria.

From Wednesday, terminally ill Victorians who meet 68 criteria will be able to ask their doctor for access to a lethal concoction of drugs, in a move that is expected to spark a national domino effect.

“This is a historic change for Victoria and the entire country – we know other states will be looking to us and watching closely,” state Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said.

“We’ve made voluntary assisted dying legal because a person’s quality of death is part of their quality of life.”

More than 2200 people have attended health department information sessions about the new scheme, but formal applications will not be accepted by doctors until Wednesday.

To date, 89 doctors have completed training and there’s at least one public health service in each region with qualified staff who can do assessments.

Prominent euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke says in the 20 years since the Northern Territory created and disbanded an assisted-dying framework, there’s been a growing demand for a choice about how people end their life.

“It will put a lot of pressure on the other state parliaments to pass legislation. You can’t have people in NSW pressing their noses against the glass saying ‘how come Victorians have got this choice and we don’t?'” Dr Nitschke told AAP.

Western Australia is eyeing similar laws, Queensland is holding an inquiry and the NT wants to reinstate laws the federal government overturned in 1997.

However, Dr Nitschke and other advocates such as Dying with Dignity’s Rodney Syme, think the laws are so tight that few people will be able to use them.

The government anticipates between 100 and 150 people per year will access the laws.

Dr Syme believes all Victorians should be talking to their doctor about end-of-life options, regardless of a terminal illness diagnosis, because it’s the only way to encourage more doctors to train in the area.

“It’s critically important that the range of doctors who are supporting it is widespread. We do not want to have a situation where there’s a small clique of supportive doctors who are taking all the responsibility and the difficulties associated with these discussions,” he told AAP.

Critics of the laws are urging people to talk to their doctors too.

Stephen Parnis is a former Australian Medical Association Victoria president and believes as health and longevity trends improve, it’s been harder to confront death.

He was among a group of practitioners who vocally opposed the laws during parliamentary debate, and remains concerned there could be wrongful deaths.

Instead, he backs improved palliative care options.

“The fact that 60-plus so-called safeguards need to be applied, that means many opportunities for the system to fall down, for errors to take place,” Dr Parnis said.

But the scheme has been championed by the government as the most conservative in the world.

The AMA insists it will support doctors, regardless of their view of the scheme.

An implementation taskforce was established to oversee the system and an independent board will review each death.

Medical professionals can conscientiously object and if patients can’t find a doctor, assisted dying ‘navigators’ are available to help, taskforce member and former VicHealth chair John Catford said.

“If you’re caring for a patient who expresses an interest in this as an option and who is at the end of their life and you’d like as a doctor to support them, then that may prompt you to take the training,” Professor Catford told AAP.

“But at the end of the day we don’t actually expect there will be huge demand for this option … it’s as much as a relief or a feeling that if things get too bad there are some other options available now.”

© AAP 2019

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