After weeks of delay, NSW parliamentarians are finally having their say about a controversial bill for assisted voluntary dying.
Terminally ill people in New South Wales may soon be granted access to voluntary assisted dying after debate on a bill finally resumed on Friday.
NSW is the only state in Australia that has not passed legislation allowing terminally ill adults to choose when they die, and it has been a slow process to get to this point.
The Legislative Assembly, or lower house of the NSW parliament, began debating the issue in October but it was delayed for “parliamentary and political reasons”.
“The important thing is debate is starting today,” Independent MP Alex Greenwich told news.com.au.
Extra sitting days have been created on Fridays, a day on which the parliament usually does not sit, in the hopes the bill will be dealt with this year.
Groups including Go Gentle and Dying with Dignity had previously warned they were willing to launch a “major by-election blitz” if the vote was delayed into next year, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Five by-elections including four in Coalition-held seats are expected to be held in February next year following the resignations of several MPs, including former premier Gladys Berejiklian.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, who is opposed to the bill, kicked off the debate this morning.
He said the answer to suffering was not to offer death but care, comfort and compassion.
“No safeguard can stand in the way of the fundamental shift we are contemplating,” he said. “It will open a door that no one can close”.
What happens now?
If the bill passes the lower house, it will go to an inquiry before being voted on in the upper house.
MPs will speak for or against the bill today, with debate expected to continue next Thursday and Friday. Those in the Liberal party will be allowed a conscience vote on the issue.
Mr Greenwich is pushing for the Premier to allow a vote in the upper house this year before the results of an inquiry are known but if this doesn’t happen, the final vote will be delayed until next year.
Record support among MPs
Mr Greenwich drafted the bill and it was released for consultation earlier this year.
It has been co-sponsored by 28 MPs from across the political spectrum — the highest number of co-sponsors on a bill in any Australian parliament.
Co-sponsors include 12 Labor MPs as well as members of the Nationals, Liberal, Greens, Animal Justice Party, several independents as well as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers.
More than 100 NSW doctors have signed a letter in support of the bill and more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling on MPs to work together to pass the legislation.
“I am confident that this bill provides the safest framework for people who are in the last
stages of a terminal illness and whose pain and suffering has become unbearable, to get
help to end their suffering peacefully, with dignity and surrounded by the people they
love,” Mr Greenwich said in September.
What does the bill say?
The bill allows someone who is 18 years and over to access voluntary assisted dying.
The person must be assessed as having decision-making capacity who is acting without duress.
They must be terminally ill with death expected within six months, or within 12 months for those with a neurodegenerative disease. Their condition must cause intolerable suffering.
The first step would be for them to make a request to a senior trained doctor, who will be allowed to refuse the request on conscience grounds.
The doctor will assess the person to make sure they fit the criteria and must refer them to other specialists, such as oncologists or psychologists, if they are unsure.
If the person is assessed as ineligible, their case will be referred to another health professional for an independent assessment.
If they are eligible, the person must sign a written declaration in front of two witnesses, requesting voluntary assisted dying.
A final request is made to their doctor for the prescribed substances.
A voluntary assistance dying board will consider applications for the prescribed substances and can refuse to provide them if they suspect the criteria is not met.
Once the person has the drug they can administer it themselves or ask a health practitioner to do so.
An independent witness must be present while a health practitioner administers the drugs and must certify that it was voluntary.
The patient is told several times throughout the process that they have no obligation to proceed and can withdraw at any time.