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An urgent need to recalibrate the nation’s moral compass on Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD)

[by Professor Gracelyn Smallwood]

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Image: NAIDOC

As a proud Birrigubba and South Sea Island woman with a distinguished work history of over 50 years of being a registered nurse and 45 years of midwifery providing quality care for all patients – both First Nation and mainstream - I make the following comments about voluntary assisted dying.

Before doing so I wish to preface my views on this contentious topic by removing those myriad health hats that’s applauded internationally and speak from a sanguine place where I believe common sense must trump political ambivalence parading as a health reality.

I speak to you today about the imperatives of recalibrating our moral compass. We must show compassion for those family, friends and associates who are terminally ill that they – through inconsistency in state legislature - should not have to endure pain and suffering to appease the sensibilities of influential players actively engaged in this controversial debate.

One of the favourite pastimes for Australians is gambling. With gambling losses of $1,288 per adult we rank No. 1 in the world as the biggest gamblers ahead of Singapore, Ireland and Canada. It is not unfamiliar for Aussie gamblers to witness a horse fall during a race meeting and think nothing of an ambulance arriving swiftly to the scene of the accident and for attending officers to assist those impacted by the unfortunate, but sadly too frequent occurrence. When the unmistakably deafening sound of a gunshot, coming from behind quickly erected covers, the punters are unambiguous in thought that once again a prized, well-loved thoroughbred has run its last race and breathed its last breath.

Why then can’t we, as a mature sophisticated society, apply the same empathy for a gravely incapacitated horse who’s been treated humanely and swiftly after an horrific race fall to that of someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, son or daughter who’s been dealt an awful hand with poor health. I’m not talking about recklessly intervening in someone’s life, but rather to do so under the clear guideline of the gold standard Victorian Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017.

Voluntary assisted dying is legal in Victoria if a person is over 18 years of age, is an Australian citizen or has been a resident in that state for at least 12 months. The affected person must have the decision making capacity, is diagnosed with a disease, illness or medical condition that is incurable; advanced, progressive and will cause death; expected to cause death within six months; and causing suffering to the person that cannot be relieved in a manner that the person finds tolerable.

Let’s move on from the fear around safety; that vulnerable members of our communities around the nation may be subject to being coerced to end their lives at the convenience of others.

Churchill Fellowship study on how voluntary assisted dying laws worked overseas by Dr Linda Sheahan in 2012 concluded that ‘the slippery slope in terms of risk to vulnerable groups has not been demonstrated by the data’.

When punters at a race meeting witness a tragic fall they don’t jump the fence to intervene with arguments around the horse’s culture, breed, athleticism or aesthetic pleasing attributes … no they forgo all vexed reasoning in prolonging the inevitable and allow common sense to prevail.

With recent surveys showing around 80% of Australians and around 70% of New Zealanders supporting legislation of some kind of voluntary assisted dying, I believe the time is right in 2021 to implement uniform national policy on this matter that has or will impact every one of us during our lifetime.

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