At 4.11pm on Thursday, 5 December 2019, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2019 passed its third reading vote in the Legislative Council of the Parliament of Western Australia by a decisive vote of 24 to 11.

Only one member changed her vote between the second and third readings: Labor MP Adele Farina.

In her speech explaining her vote Ms Farina highlighted the defeat of a series of amendments designed to address the inherent problems with a law permitting the prescription of a lethal substance for a person to keep at home for self-administration at some later time.

These problems, as identified in Ms Farina’s speech, and during the consideration in detail, include:

  • The experimental nature of the lethal substances which could be any Schedule 4 or Schedule 8 poison or combination of these poisons with no scientific assessment of their efficacy or of adverse side effects;
  • The reported rate of complications from other jurisdictions of between 5 percent and 17 percent, including regurgitation, seizures, failure to be fully unconscious before asphyxiation or heart attack occurs, lengthy time from ingestion to death, and failure to die;
  • The lack of any requirement for a health practitioner or, indeed any witness, to be present at the time the poison is taken;
  • No system for reporting adverse outcomes even if a medical practitioner or other witness is present;
  • No assessment of the decision-making capacity of the person after the lethal poison is issued (even though it may be kept for months or even years);
  • No way of ensuring that the person is taking the lethal poison voluntarily – the person could be tricked, cajoled or even forced into ingesting it.

Ms Farina also spoke about the pressure put on her to support the government’s position on the Bill. To her credit she resisted this pressure and voted according to her conscience.

Greens MP Alison Xamon expressed significant concerns with the Bill but was bound by Greens Party policy to support it. She said “I also remain concerned that the safeguards are insufficient. However, with all my heart I hope that my concerns are proven to be without foundation because it will weigh very heavily on my conscience if my concerns ever come to fruition.”

The Minister for the Environment and for Disability Services, Stephen Dawson, who had the carriage of the Bill in the Legislative Council, reported that it had taken 78 hours and 43 minutes to “consider and debate the 184 clauses contained in the bill”. This equates to just 25 minutes and 40 seconds per clause.

This detailed consideration did result in the passage of 55 amendments (25 moved by Nick Goiran, the leading opponent of the Bill; 18 by the government; 4 by Adele Farina and 8 by three other members), which, contrary to the characterisation of euthanasia lobby Go Gently as “mainly grammatical”, dealt with substantial matters. These included:

  • Prohibiting a healthcare worker, other than a medical practitioner during a medical consultation, from initiating a discussion on euthanasia or assisted suicide with a person;
  • Requiring a medical practitioner who initiates such a discussion to also discuss treatment options and palliative care;
  • Ensuring that medical or nurse practitioners involved in the process are not beneficiaries under the person’s will; and
  • In the case of euthanasia (ie, practitioner administration of a lethal poison) requiring the practitioner to report adverse events;

However, many important amendments were defeated – in some cases by just one vote. These included:

  • Requiring at least one of the medical practitioners involved to have some specialist qualifications or experience in the relevant condition;
  • Ensuring equal access for Western Australians in rural areas to palliative care (as well as equal access to euthanasia and assisted suicide which the Bill guarantees) – defeated by one vote with Nationals voting against the amendment; and
  • Involving a psychiatrist or other relevant expert in assessment of decision making capacity;

In his third reading speech the Hon Nick Goiran summed up his reasons for opposing the Bill:

The desire of a significant proportion of confident people for ready access to lethal injections ought never override the rights of the quiet vulnerable to safety and protection.

Secondly, if we are intellectually honest and reason through the theory of a euthanasia regime, we should conclude that it is inherently unsafe. The insufficiency of the criminal justice safeguards informs us of this; the prevalence of medical negligence informs us of this; the ease of doctor shopping informs us of this; the reality of doctor bias informs us of this; and the evidence of elder abuse informs us of this.

When we engage with the lived experience of the very few jurisdictions that have legalised euthanasia or assisted suicide, we know that the theory of an inherently unsafe regime has resulted in casualties of wrongful deaths.

Ultimately, there is another way; there is a better way. There is a safe approach to end-of-life choices. However, it will require all of us to persistently insist that quality palliative care is made available to every Western Australian.

The Bill now returns to the Legislative Assembly where the 55 amendments made to it will be considered on Tuesday.

The government has repeatedly stated that it will be at least 18 months before the Bill comes into effect. As Ms Farina stated in her speech “We were told on no less than 77 occasions that [problems identified in the debate] will be sorted during the 18-month implementation phase.”

Western Australia will become the 18th jurisdiction in the world to enact a fatally flawed scheme for the State-sanctioned, extra judicial termination of the lives of its citizens by euthanasia and/or assisted suicide.

Richard Egan is a researcher who has studied euthanasia and assisted suicide laws for 35 years and is the author of Seventeen Fatally Flawed Experiments in Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia and Twelve Categories of Wrongful Death from Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet