By VINNIE RODI

VICTORIA’S Parliamentarians are months away from settling what is arguably one of the most talked about and debated issues in recent memory.

The moral, ethical and spiritual debate around adopting a framework that legalises euthanasia in Victoria has been a hot topic, with health professionals, Members of Parliament and those in the general community sharing their views on the subject over the past six months.

The matter, however, will be put to rest by year’s end, with the State Government this week committing to introducing a Bill into Parliament in the coming months that, if passed, will legalise voluntary assisted dying in Victoria.

The Government will incorporate all 66 recommendations made in a final report released by the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Voluntary Assisted Dying into the Bill, with the Panel this week saying their report detailed “a safe and compassionate legislative framework for assisted dying in Victoria.”

Member for Mildura Peter Crisp said that it was his understanding that the Bill will be introduced during the week of August 22, before being debated during the week of September 5.

“Should it pass the Legislative Assembly, it will then go to the Legislative Council for further debate,” he said. “This will be a conscience vote for Parliamentarians, and therefore my role is to review the material in detail, and listen to the views of my electorate, before I make a decision on how I vote.

“I welcome public debate on this issue, and in particular the input of those health professionals who will be involved in voluntary assisted dying.”

The Panel, in a media statement, said it was confident that “the clear and comprehensive framework” will support the safe operation of voluntary assisted dying in Victoria, while providing a genuine choice for Victorians at the end of their life.

The final report’s recommendations cover eligibility, request and assessment, and oversight, and under the proposed model, a Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board will be established to review every case of assisted dying, as well as a series of new criminal offences for anyone – including health practitioners – who attempt to act outside the scheme and coerce or induce a person to access it.

Setting the criteria

When it comes to eligibility, the Panel is proposing that people must be 18 years or older, be a resident of Victoria and an Australian citizen or permanent resident, have decision-making capacity in relation to voluntary assisted dying, and be diagnosed with an incurable illness, disease or medical condition that is advanced, progressive and will cause death.

A person’s condition also has to be expected to cause death within weeks or months (no longer that 12 months), and must cause suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner the person deems tolerable.

The Panel stated in their report that the criteria “will ensure volunteer assisted dying will allow a small number of people who are at the end of their lives to choose the timing and manner of their death.”

It also states that “there is no intention to give people who are not dying access, and the legislation will not give these people an option to choose between living and dying.”

The Panel also ruled out allowing those suffering from mental illness or a disability alone from being eligible for voluntary assisted dying.

“This is because the voluntary assisted dying framework is for people who are suffering at the end of their life,” the report reads. “The Panel does, however, recognise that if a person fulfils all the eligibility criteria, the fact that they have a mental illness or a disability should not exclude them from accessing voluntary assisted dying.”

A person will also be required to make three separate requests, and undergo two independent medical assessments to ensure they meet the eligibility criteria, and are “properly informed.”

Sixty-eight safeguards have also been embedded in the framework to protect vulnerable Victorians from exploitation and coercion, making it the safest, and most conservative model in the world, according to the State Government.

Panel Chair, Professor Brian Owler, PICTURED, this week thanked Panel members for their work in developing the final report.

The Panel was made up of clinical, legal, consumer, disability and palliative care experts, and was appointed to develop a legislative framework for voluntary assisted dying in Victoria.

It built on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee’s Inquiry into End of Life Choices.

Guiding principles

The Panel followed a number of ‘guiding principles’ throughout the process, namely that every life has equal value, that a person’s autonomy should be respected, that a person has the right to be supported in making informed decisions about their care and treatment, and that those approaching the end of life should have access to quality care to minimise any suffering.

Professor Owler said the Panel was unanimous in its view that voluntary assisted dying should never be a substitute for palliative care and symptom management – which was one of the major concerns raised throughout the process.

The Panel received 176 written submissions and consulted with more than 300 stakeholders in 14 forums, while also engaging in round tables across metropolitan and regional Victoria.

The Panel also reviewed extensive research and similar frameworks in international jurisdictions, while bringing its own expertise to the table “to develop the most appropriate framework for Victorian context.”

“The Panel is conscious of the sensitive nature of this topic, and the diversity of opinions regarding whether voluntary assisted dying should be established in Victoria,” Professor Owler said. “Providing a safe framework for Victorians has been our paramount consideration.

The full report is available online at www2.health.vic.gov.au/about/health-strategies/voluntary-assisted-dying-bill.