It’s been 14 years since Jon Adams lost his sister Gay to cancer. Her final days were horrendous, spent in the grip of excruciating pain that left her body rigid.
She died after a tumour in her neck ruptured, shattering her vertebrae. Doctors admitted they were terrified to move her, fearing her spinal cord would snap.
To this day, Mr Adams is tormented by the memory of his sister’s screams and her pleas to die.
Now, with MPs days away from debating Queensland’s first voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws, something else is keeping him awake at night.
He’s terrified the proposed laws will be “diluted” at the eleventh hour to suit religious objectors, and that if they succeed, others will be sentenced to the kind of death Gay suffered.
In recent weeks, faith-based healthcare providers have ramped up their campaign against voluntary assisted deaths in their facilities.
A full-page newspaper ad published last week said parliamentarians were “seeking to make history by becoming the only jurisdiction in Australia that actually forces people or workplaces, against their will, to participate in voluntary assisted dying”.
The ad, endorsed by Catholic healthcare organisations, warned: “If it is passed this bill will deny patients, residents and staff the choice of living and working in hospitals and aged care facilities where voluntary assisted dying is not provided.”
“It will force voluntary assisted dying on hospitals and aged care facilities with deep ethical objections to it.”
As the bill stands, health practitioners cannot be forced to participate in voluntary assisted dying.
And faith-based facilities cannot be forced to actively provide voluntary assisted dying services. Anyone in their care who wants help to die can be transferred to other, willing facilities.
But what about people like Gay, who want to die but are too fragile to be moved?
Under that scenario the bill requires faith-based facilities to let in independent doctors to help people end their lives, something that has greatly upset providers affiliated with the Catholic church.
St Vincent’s Health Australia chief executive Toby Hall says staff are shocked by the prospect of witnessing “premature deaths” in their workplaces, carried out by external doctors with no relationship to sites where they’ll end people’s lives.
Mater Board chair Francis Sullivan says external doctors won’t even have to inform institutions such as Mater “of their intent to enter our premises and euthanise a patient who is under the care of one of our own doctors”.
He has urged MPs to recognise the “special character and ethos” of institutions like Mater.
Go Gentle Australia is the advocacy group founded by Andrew Denton after his father died a slow, painful death from heart failure.
It has urged the government to resist any amendments that would effectively put voluntary assisted dying beyond the reach of people who cannot be moved.
“Giving institutions the right to block access to voluntary assisted dying for terminally ill people in their care is the new battlefield in this debate,” Go Gentle CEO Kiki Paul says.
“Watering down the bill’s provisions, and allowing institutions to dictate medical treatment, would take away the very control this bill was designed to hand back to the terminally ill.
“Institutions, who have always opposed giving people this control, should not be given this power.”
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was asked on Tuesday if she would rule out any last minute changes to the bill, which will be considered by cabinet on Monday before the parliamentary debate begins the following day.
“Cabinet can do whatever it wants to do, that’s the prerogative of the cabinet,” she replied.
On Wednesday, she seemed to play down the prospect of amendments, saying the bill was “robust” and the result of extensive work by the Queensland Law Reform Commission.
“It is extremely comprehensive and it has been out there in the public arena for a long long time now,” she said.
Labor and Liberal National Party MPs have been granted a conscience vote on the bill.
Tracey Ferrier, AAP