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Friday, December 1, 2023

Inquiry hears those seeking assisted dying come from ‘all walks of life’

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Terminally ill people seeking voluntary assisted dying are not “control freaks” but come from all walks of life, a NSW parliamentary inquiry has heard.

The upper house inquiry is considering a draft law that would allow voluntary assisted dying in NSW and on Monday heard testimony from 20 witnesses including academics, doctors, palliative care specialists and religious leaders at a packed public hearing in Sydney.

Greg Mewett, a palliative care physician from Ballarat Health Services, told the inquiry that in his 15 years as a specialist in palliative care he had been involved in 42 voluntary assisted dying assessments under Victorian law.

Mewett said he did not see those seeking voluntary assisted dying as “control freaks” who wanted to take “absolute control”, describing them as “all sorts of people”.

“They come from from a wide variety of education and socio-economic backgrounds, there’s often this thought that people are small ‘l’ liberal minded, well educated, university education people, that’s not the case in my experience,” he said.

Mewett said, in his experience, people being coerced into voluntary assisted dying was not an issue, nor was “cognitive impairment and depression”, while acknowledging that the “stakes are higher” for doctors in a request when assessing the capacity of patients to make decisions.

“It behoves us all to be more to attentive to capacity assessment and assessing whether a patient’s mental health condition might be impacting on their decision making,” he said.

Bishop Michael Stead, representing the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, urged amendments be made to the bill so that it worked “long term” for NSW society.

Stead said he wanted amendments to the bill to protect “four classes” of vulnerable people comprising those with limited or no access to high-quality palliative care, older Australians who could be manipulated by unscrupulous family members, those with depression or mental illness, or those living in residential aged care.

“I am concerned about the long term impacts of this bill and what it says to people who have diminished capacity,” he said.

“I am concerned about what it means for the definition of what compassion looks like. I am concerned about what it says about an apparent affirmation of a right to die. I don’t believe there is a right to die.”

Earlier, Australian Catholic University policy director Michael Casey told the inquiry that research showed a dire shortage of palliative care professionals outside the state’s cities.

While his submission acknowledged limitations in the data, it said that in six of the seven years to 2020 no palliative care doctors resided in remote NSW areas such as Bourke.

Only in two of those years did any palliative care doctor live in outer regional areas like Narrabri.

Over the same period the number of palliative care nurses increased significantly in inner regional and outer regional areas, but for all bar one of those years remote parts of the state again had none.

Casey argued the research showed improving access to, and quality of, palliative care was the next logical step for NSW.

“It seems like a big jump to go straight to assisted dying when … there’s a long way to go in making sure that everyone who needs high quality palliative care has access to it,” he said.

The inquiry also heard from retired priest and academic John Fleming, who compared legalising voluntary assisted dying to the slave trade.

“No one may sell themselves into slavery even if they want to,” he said.

“In the same way, until now, we have prohibited the homicide of innocent persons even when they want to kill themselves.”

The inquiry is racing to consider the bill and report back to the Legislative Council before parliament resumes next year.

It mustered a 52 to 32 majority in the lower house after four days of debate.

If passed, the draft law would make NSW the last Australian state to allow the terminally ill to choose to end their lives.

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