Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill

31 March, 2021

Second Reading

The Hon. J.S. LEE (19:46): I rise to speak on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2020. I understand that this bill is perhaps the 17th attempt that various members have brought to the South Australian parliament to allow voluntary assisted dying to occur for people facing certain circumstances. I thank the Hon. Kyam Maher for introducing this bill.

As honourable members know, this bill is a conscience vote for Liberal Party members and therefore the views expressed in the Legislative Council tonight are my own views. These views are formed from personal experience I have with my family and experiences that many have shared with me over the years both privately and publicly.

Those who have paid close attention to this matter would know that I have not supported any of the voluntary euthanasia bills that have come before the parliament since I was elected to parliament in 2010. I want to let honourable members know that I am likely to be voting differently this time, and I foreshadow that I will be supporting the second reading of this bill. I am keen to listen to the explanation of proposed amendments, and then I will give it my full consideration on the third reading after the completion of the committee stage.

Given that this bill is highly sensitive and emotional to community members and given the diversity of opinions on voluntary assisted dying amongst health professionals, legal practitioners and religious groups, I want to thank everyone who has presented their opinions on this important bill. The research I have read so far is that an overwhelming majority of Australians—it was reported nearly 90 per cent of Australians—would support lawful voluntary assisted dying. Currently, only two states, Victoria and Western Australia, have legalised VAD.

Since 2016, there have been a number of comprehensive examinations of end-of-life care across different jurisdictions. These inquiries have found that a significant number of people are experiencing unbearable and unnecessary suffering at the end of life, despite the best medical care. There are hundreds of testimonies from people describing with great clarity the damage done in the absence of VAD laws, including profound trauma suffered by families and friends from witnessing agonising death.

I was with my beloved mother until her last breath in a hospital, and it was the most horrible and traumatic experience for me and my family. She passed away after two months of agonising and enduring advanced-stage cancer. In the last two weeks before her death, my mum was begging for a merciful and dignified way to die. She was completely aware of her surroundings; however, her last wish was not to be granted.

My mum was a beautiful woman who treasured life. She was one of those energetic seniors in her 70s who believed in positive ageing, living a happy and fulfilling life regardless of how old a person is. Even when she was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer, she fought so hard and so desperately to live the remainder of her life until she no longer was able to do so.

The last two weeks of my mum's life were simply heartbreaking. She looked unrecognisable, miserable and totally helpless. Her illness took everything away from her. She was bony. Her skin looked bright yellow from liver malfunction. It was an incredibly stressful and emotional time to see my mum in such a terrible state. It was a humiliating experience for my mum as she lay there in the hospital bed, no longer able to eat properly, no longer able to go to the toilet or take a shower, and no longer able to care for herself. She was just waiting to die.

Australia has one of the best palliative care systems in the world. However, palliative care cannot help everyone. It cannot alleviate all suffering. In Palliative Care Australia's own words, 'While pain and other symptoms can be helped, complete relief of suffering is not always possible, even with optimal palliative care.'

A voluntary assisted dying law does not replace palliative care, it simply adds one more end-of-life option for doctors and their patients to explore alongside palliative care. Palliative Care Australia's own investigation of overseas jurisdictions has found:

…no evidence to suggest that palliative care sectors were adversely impacted by the introduction of [VAD] legislation. If anything, in jurisdictions where assisted dying is available, the palliative care sector has further advanced.

As many joint committees or cross-party parliamentary inquiries on end-of-life choices found, Australian doctors already help dying patients to die more peacefully, but they do so unlawfully and without regulation, support, transparency or accountability. These practices put enormous risk and burden on health professionals. It should not be a crime for a doctor to help a dying patient die peacefully because it is the final wish of that patient.

For those doctors currently faced with the agonising choice of helping a patient to die and breaking the law, or abiding by the law and leaving that patient to die with great suffering, a voluntary assisted dying law provides protection. With safeguards introduced, there will be more than protection because it provides guidance and opportunity to consult with colleagues and the family of the person who is dying.

If this parliament is to pass voluntary assisted dying laws, then the law must be designed to help some of society's most vulnerable people: patients at the end of stages of a terminal illness whose suffering is beyond meaningful medical help. It is important to everyone to be reassured that there are enough and multiple safeguards to be built into the legislation to ensure everyone involved is protected, and that no-one can abuse the system.

On the question of equity and fairness, many have expressed to me that the current situation in Australia regarding the assisted dying law is incoherent and inequitable. For instance, eligible Victorians have been able to seek medical assistance to die since mid-2019; Western Australians will have access to similar laws by mid-2021. However, around two-thirds of Australians, about 65 per cent, will be denied the same choice.

My dear brother is 56 years old. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer in 2019. The doctor said that he does not have much time to live. The cancer tumour has spread through his body and his brain—he is like a walking time bomb. We could lose him at any time. He wants to live for as long as he can to see his son graduate from university, and to spend time holidaying with his wife in retirement. Unfortunately, at the rate of his poor health condition he may not be able to achieve or see any of his dreams come true.

My brother has lived in South Australia since 1979, when our family migrated here, and South Australia is all he knows, everyone he loves is here, but he does not have the choice to die here the way he wishes at the moment. The question is: why should Australians in some states have access to lawful assisted dying, while others do not, simply by accident of where they live or by their postcode? This is considered unfair by my brother.

We have had many conversations around dinner tables in recent times. He says that he has never begged me in his life before, but he says that, as an elected member to the parliament, if I can change one thing, if I can at least help South Australia to introduce or pass a law, then he will be able to die in the state that he calls home.

My brother said that he and his family will move to Melbourne to live if this law is not passed, and of course I do not want him or his family to leave South Australia. I lost my mum a few years ago, and I lost my dad last year when he had a stroke. My beloved father, who has always been reasonably healthy, left the world suddenly and peacefully in November of last year. It was a blessing that his departure was a quick exit without the enduring pain that my mum suffered.

As Australians we have long accepted that we should be free to make our own decisions about how we live our lives. If we are in the end stages of a terminal or incurable illness, the vast majority of us believe we should be able to decide when we have suffered enough. Consistently reliable opinion polling over two decades reveals support for voluntary assisted dying to be in excess of 70 per cent across every state and territory. This is irrespective of variations in the questions asked and methodology used.

In recent years, that support has risen to nearly 90 per cent according to the 2019 ABC Vote Compass survey of almost two million Australians. This support, I believe, is also largely irrespective of religious beliefs. Christians have shown to be strongly backing assisted dying. ABC Vote Compass found that 76 per cent of Catholics and 75 per cent of Anglicans supported the statement that terminally ill patients should be able to end their own lives with medical assistance.

I have consulted widely with multicultural community groups. Many of them have not expressed a statement publicly, but many of the Buddhist associations and some Hindu association groups have conveyed their thoughts to me that merciful dying and assisted dying with compassion would probably be a good way that patients have the choice, and it would be a wise and compassionate thing to do, otherwise it would be cruel and unkind for us to interfere with someone's choice.

The word 'voluntary' in voluntary assisted dying is the key to the legislation we are debating. You do not have to agree with assisted dying if you do not want to use it yourself, but if other patients feel that this is an option for them, then they can make that decision. From my own experience and the many tragic circumstances people have shared with me, I believe that every terminally ill person, no matter where they live, should have the same fundamental right to access more compassionate end-of-life choices, including voluntary assisted dying.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, I will be supporting the second reading of this bill. I will give it my full consideration on the third reading after the completion of the committee stage.