The panel charged with montoring the implementation of Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying (VAD) legislation has released its first report -- six months after the state’s euthanasia laws came into effect.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board’s first Report of Operations, released on Tuesday, provides information on how Victoria’s euthanasia legislation is being enacted, including details of how many people have been issued with a ‘VAD permit’, as well as information on some of the barriers preventing people from accessing the scheme.
According to the report, permits to access the lethal medication were issued to 70 patients between June 19, when the scheme first started, and December 31. Overall 52 patients ended their lives. This is high, considering the Victorian government had suggested that initial numbers would be as low as 12 in the first year.
Ordinarily, patients are prescribed a lethal substance that they in turn self-administer, but the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic) states that patients who are unable to consume the medication themselves may receive assistance from a doctor. In the six month timeframe covered by the report, nine patients were given the medication by a doctor because they were physically incapable of administering the drug themselves.
The report discusses a number of challenges to the implementation of the scheme, including exisiting Commonwealth legislation that makes it an offence to use a carriage service (such as telephone or telehealth) for suicide-related material (which may include voluntary assisted dying). Some doctors are concerned that they may face prosecution if they communicate with patients via phone about assisted dying. The authors of the report state that “there is potential for a significant impact to be experienced by rural and remote Victorians unable to use telehealth technology”. Several VAD advocates are campaigning for the law to be amended.
Betty King, the chair of the review board, said she had found no evidence of families coercing patients into ending their lives. “I have not seen (evidence of parents being coerced to end their lives), and I have been looking, believe me”.
Elsewhere, the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Medical Association has emphatically repudiated the participation of doctors in the process of assisted dying. It declares on its website:
The concept of PAS is contrary to the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and the World Medical Association (WMA) stance on Euthanasia as well as the ethical tradition of Medicine overall. From a pragmatic perspective, a medical practitioner does not have to be directly involved ... Any debate ... must not be framed by an expectation that registered medical practitioners will be permitted to be involved in the act of promoting, prescribing or delivering a medication with lethal intent (i.e. [physician-assisted suicide). The community should continue to trust that Medical Practitioners will compassionately and ethically safeguard human health (including dignity, comfort and safety) and life.
Xavier Symons is deputy editor of BioEdge
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