Euthanasia legislation has passed the NSW Parliament, with Archbishop Anthony Fisher describing it as “truly a dark day for New South Wales”.
The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021, moved by Sydney MLA Alex Greenwich, passed the Upper House 23-15 just after midday on 19 May, following a late-night sitting, and after minor parliamentary technicalities was sent to the Governor for assent.
NSW’s Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) regime will roll out across the state in 18 months after the Act commences, leading to voluntary and doctor-assisted suicides in healthcare and aged care facilities.
“If a civilisation is to be judged by how it treats its weakest members, the NSW parliament has failed miserably, and has set a dark and dangerous path for all posterity, determining a new and disturbing definition of what it means to be human,” Archbishop Fisher said.
The bill largely passed unamended despite a marathon last-minute attempt by Labor MLC Greg Donnelly and other pro-life parliamentarians to curb the worst excesses of the legislation, characterised by pro-euthanasia advocates in parliament and the media as “hostile amendments” and “obstruction”.
Protections for faith-based aged care facilities who wished to be exempted from the VAD regime were rejected 23-13, despite protests in recent days from Catholic Health Australia, Anglicare and HammondCare that they must be given exemptions for reasons of freedom of conscience.
“This is essentially an authoritarian imposition on what are, in our civil society, associations of people coming together for a purpose … To impose on them provisions whereby, within their facilities, people’s lives will be ended by assisted suicide or euthanasia is utterly repugnant and it is draconian,” Mr Donnelly said.
“The disturbing nature of this legislation is compounded by the way the debate over amendments was conducted,” Archbishop Fisher said following the vote.
“All amendments put forward by those who would seek to make this deadly regime even a little bit safer were rejected.
“That no meaningful amendments were accepted speaks to a ‘winner takes all’ approach by the proponents of this bill and reveals an ugliness that has invaded our politics. This does not bode well for the protection of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Mr Donnelly and other MLCs, including the Minister for Finance Damien Tudehope, also attempted to pass amendments to clarify whether a person has the decision-making capacity to opt for VAD, one of which aimed to establish that a person “significantly impacted by a mental health impairment” was unable to make a responsible decision to be euthanised.
“I would have thought that, as part of a responsible legislature, this was a self-evident provision,” Mr Tudehope said.
Those amendments were defeated 23-14.
Amendments to prevent healthcare workers initiating discussions about VAD were also refused, as were protections against VAD being offered at the suggestion of third parties, and requirements for the provision of palliative care.
Some minor amendments passed, concerning the correction of typographical errors and the collection of a limited number of statistics.
Pro-euthanasia lobby group Dying with Dignity paid tribute to Alex Greenwich, and MLC Adam Searle who took carriage of the bill in the upper house.
“We are all feeling an extreme mix of emotions today. There is the relief, that we’ve finally achieved this law reform so that in the future, people with a terminal illness will not have to go through prolonged suffering in their final days of life,” Dying with Dignity NSW Vice-President, Shayne Higson said.
“However, we also continue to grieve for the families and others, who have watched a loved one die with extreme suffering. For those people, this is a heavy mix of emotions.”
Groups staunchly opposed to euthanasia who had been watching the final progress of the legislation, including organisations that now face the prospect of its reality within their own agencies, responded within minutes to its passing.
Catholic Health Australia, the nation’s peak Catholic healthcare advocacy organisation, said Catholic health and aged care providers were disappointed and saddened by the passing of a law violating almost every aspect of their daily operations.
“Catholic health and aged care providers in New South Wales have served their communities with compassion and professionalism for more than a century and will continue to offer high-quality hospital and end of life care despite this poorly designed law,” said Brigid Meney, CHA’s Director of Strategy and Mission.
“Our members have made it clear they cannot conscionably participate in voluntary assisted dying and yet the Parliament has passed a law that forces our aged care members to facilitate it.
“This law will force organisations that do not agree with assisted dying to allow doctors onto their premises to prescribe and even administer restricted drugs with the intention of terminating a resident’s life – without even informing the facility.
“These laws ignore the rights of staff and residents who may choose to work and live in a particular residential facility because of their opposition to assisted dying.”
Broken Bay Bishop Anthony Randazzo also expressed his disappointment after the marathon debate, saying it was an extremely disappointing situation when it is accepted that the state can determine who lives and who dies.
“Assisted suicide is a completely unacceptable solution to the problem of suffering,” Bishop Randazzo said.
“A genuinely human society is not how we decide to eliminate those who suffer, but how we care for them.
“While deeply moved by many comments aired during the years of this debate, it is clear the social mood and the narrative has evolved in a way that the language of personal rights now dominates our concern for the common good.
“We should be considering and caring for the rights of all citizens to be well, to have the care they need, and not lost to the margins.
“We now have to consider what this means to our health care and aged care, the vulnerable and confused.
“Now more than ever we must ensure members of our family, friends, those who are alone, the vulnerable in our community know and understand that they are loved, that we will be with them in their journey, and that they are not a burden.”