Western Australia’s parliament has paved the way for a team of medical personnel to fly anywhere in the vast state to kill those requesting assisted suicide, but they voted down an amendment giving all Western Australians the equal right to palliative care.
Experts dismayed at the new laws passed by the WA Parliament on 10 December, warned that the new regime is even worse than Victoria’s and disadvantages people with terminal illness living in remote areas.
In May the Parliament acknowledged that the state had the lowest proportion of palliative care specialists in Australia at 15 full-time equivalents for the state, which specialists say is less than a third the number required to meet national benchmarks.
Upper house Liberal MP Nick Goiran, who has campaigned staunchly against euthanasia legalisation, said that the “dangerous” legislation goes far beyond the Victorian regime and offers little choice when it comes to end-of-life care options. Mr Goiran was the most vocally opposed to the bill which passed the WA Legislative Council 24 votes to 11 on 5 December, rising to speak on each of its 168 clauses. One amendment voted down would have stipulated that people in remote areas have equal access to palliative care as those living in the cities.
Health Minister Roger Cook told media that the WA government would send mobile teams to regional Western Australians to ensure they could access euthanasia and assisted suicide, but the Labor government says it cannot make any such guarantee for people requesting palliative care.
“Look beyond the ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’ rhetoric and you will see that this Labor government have guaranteed to fly whatever is required, including a team of eight all-expenses-paid [medics], to regional WA to enable people living in remote Western Australia access to voluntary assisted dying,” Mr Goiran told The Catholic Weekly.
“This same government, however, will not do the same for a regional patient who requests palliative care.”
The bill returned to the WA Legislative Assembly on 10 December for approval of amendments introduced in the Upper House during a bruising debate and was passed just after 6pm.
WA palliative expert and University of Western Australia Professor Douglas Bridge said that the new laws were no cause for celebration.
“The powerful media campaign supporting euthanasia and assisted suicide or VAD has included false criticism of palliative care in WA,” he said.
“This legislation will damage palliative care in three ways, some patients will be brought by their families requesting euthanasia, some will refuse to receive the necessary palliative care and a large portion of our scarce palliative care resources will be diverted to discussions about euthanasia.”
The former Dean of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Fremantle, Professor Mary McComish, said that the laws omit Victorian safeguards as doctors can initiate the conversation with patients about assisted suicide, no specialist needs to be involved in the assessment of the patient, and psychiatric or psychological screening is not necessarily required.
“The conscientious objection for doctors is not as strong also, but what really worries me is that in WA and in Victoria there is no ability written into the legislation for faith-based health facilities to opt out,” she said.
“Our medical and social structures, our doctor-patient relationships and the Hippocratic Oath are being overturned and there are many ramifications that will come from this.”
Archbishop Timothy Costelloe SDB of Perth said that assisted suicide in any form “represents a radical breach in the universal prohibition on one person killing another”.
“This prohibition sits at the heart of every civilised society,” he said. The bill was passed despite recent polling that showed that 75 per cent of regional Western Australians, including 73 per cent of pro-euthanasia respondents, wanted the critical palliative care shortage fixed before euthanasia was introduced.
WA Premier Mark McGowan and euthanasia supporter posted celebratory comments on social media saying the bill had passed its “biggest hurdle”.
Critics of the legislation have focused on the McGowan Labor Government, accusing it of trying to bulldoze the legislation through the Parliament, by refusing to consider any proposals or amendments as debate took place in the Lower House.
So far, the debate has been characterised by marathon sittings and hundreds of hours of debate.