OP-ED: Choice Essential in a Compassionate System

Thursday 3 September 2020, The Examiner



The Legislative Council is about to consider a Bill that has garnered much debate with Members receiving a larger number of enquiries and submissions than usual - the vast majority of which are well-articulated, well-reasoned and impassioned.

I am of course, referring to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

I read every email and letter sent, whether in favour or against, and am continuing to have discussions with constituents, members of the medical fraternity and anyone else wishing to speak with me.

I have piles of research in my office.

It has been heartening to see so many people engaging with their local Members and with the law-making process.

While the majority of mail is overwhelmingly in favour of VAD, there is also much correspondence against and I appreciate everyone taking the time to tell me of their thoughts and beliefs, which I will consider when we debate this Bill.

I support VAD in principle and believe if someone is dying and in intolerable pain and misery that I, as a Member of Parliament, have no right to decide how they end their life if they choose to do so.

It is however, our responsibility to ensure that a terminally ill person does not feel so ill and alone, that they take matters into their own hands to end their suffering.

With his daughter's permission I share the story of 91-year-old "Fred" who was suffering constant and ever-increasing pain from his bone cancer.

He had been hospitalised twice over the previous 18 months to reduce the angry, growing tumour that prevented him relieving himself with the ease we all take for granted. For a month after his hospital visits he said it was "like peeing razor blades". Up and down to the toilet, half awake, this journey was sometimes repeated six times a night. He craved a good nights' sleep.

Fred's beloved wife, together 64 years, died after he sadly watched her dementia drift into fear, disorientation and depression.

He said it was the cruellest thing to see her suffer, lose ability, fall, become violent, damage herself, break her hip and then enter palliative care for 13 long days and nights. She endured 13 days with no water, no food, no medication ... just the morphine and her beloved husband watched as the symptoms of dehydration claimed her.

She suffered so badly and he suffered alongside her.

By all accounts Fred was a wonderful man who contributed to life and cared for everyone.

One day, sadly Fred could no longer continue on with his pain and suffering terminal cancer. He did not wish to suffer any longer and wanted to die.

I reiterate, I support choice.

It should go without saying that any VAD legislation should contain built-in protections that do not oblige a terminally ill person to participate in VAD, nor any medical practitioner be compelled to provide it. Again, choice is what I believe matters most.

It would be naive to think that covert forms of VAD aren't already occurring. What VAD legislation should seek to do is bring regulation to these practices and create order by codifying a system of safeguards to minimise the harm that could otherwise be occurring.

I emphasise I believe palliative care has a very important place in caring for the terminally ill.

Should the VAD Bill successfully become law, I would remain a fierce advocate for the support and funding of palliative care and its ongoing improvement, in parallel with the roll out and responsible implementation of any VAD laws.

What has guided me on my thoughts on this Bill is hearing the individual stories of those who have supported their loved ones through traumatic, painful and unreasonably drawn-out deaths.

There is a compilation of 107 stories on Mike Gaffney's website which are worth reading. Witnessing suffering of the type Fred experienced, over a prolonged period, is difficult and takes a heavy toll.

Actually experiencing it would be another thing entirely.

I ask everyone to place themselves in 91-year-old Fred's position, exhausted and in intolerable pain - and then ask, is it wrong to end it at a time of your choosing with peace and dignity?

I am told that VAD laws, when done correctly, provide this choice in a manner that is regulated, overseen and protects the vulnerable from existing practices which can go under the radar.

There is no replacement for quality palliative care and in the most severe and dire circumstances, I believe that Voluntary Assisted Dying has a place in a compassionate health care system.


Rosemary Armitage, independent Launceston MLC


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