23 June 2014
(Private Members Statement, 19 June 2014, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
Most of my constituents and 80 per cent of Australians want the option to choose a painless death if they or someone they love becomes terminally ill and experiences severe suffering that cannot be relieved.
The law must remove futile suffering. Physician-assisted dying and voluntary euthanasia allows a doctor to prescribe or administer lethal medication to a patient at their request. Assisted dying laws exist in Switzerland, Oregon, Washington, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, but they do not exist in New South Wales or anywhere in Australia. Palliative care cannot always prevent a slow and painful death because it does not relieve all forms of pain and suffering, such as extreme weakness and fatigue, disability, insomnia, difficulty with swallowing, psychological distress and loss of dignity.
Last year my constituent Loredana Allessio-Mulhall shared her story with me. She is 63 and has had multiple sclerosis for 37 years. Her condition has deteriorated and she now requires assistance for everything, including eating, dressing, bathing and going to the toilet. She cannot move an inch. She has a device that allows her to speak, but will soon lose the ability to speak. She is able to answer the phone with her mouth, but sometimes she cannot reach. Loredana receives the maximum care of seven hours a day but the rest of the time she is alone in her flat, unable to move. Loredana does not want to die now but when her body shuts down further she wants to die safely and painlessly, surrounded by her family.
There are many sad stories from people whose loved ones have died after immense suffering. A daughter wrote about her father whose incurable cancer prevented him from eating because of serious stomach pain. His mouth was inflamed, which made it difficult to understand him when he spoke. He could not go to the toilet alone and he could not sleep or swallow. The son of a man who contracted motor neurone disease wrote about his father taking his own life out of fear of starving to death or dying from choking on his saliva. His father had lost the capacity to speak and swallow. He stressed that his father wanted to live longer but took his life while he could still administer medication independently to avoid putting others at risk of conviction.
A woman whose husband was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, which eventually prevented his being able to walk, talk, write, eat or see properly, tells how her husband took his life prematurely because he feared his dying days. It is likely he would have died from choking. She pointed out that if he had access to assisted dying he could have been around longer and died with her by his side. These stories are heartbreaking and highlight how ludicrous the current situation is. If people are suffering significantly and death is inevitable, they should be able to end their life with their family by their side when the suffering becomes unbearable.
Last year Cate Faehrmann introduced her Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill, which was defeated in a conscience vote in the other place. The bill included strong safeguards, such as requirements for the patient to be at least 18 years old and to be suffering from an illness that causes severe and unacceptable pain or distress. The patient would have to be mentally capable and fully informed of the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment, which has been certified by a psychiatrist and two physicians. Physicians would not be forced to assist someone to die. Cate Faehrmann should be commended for her work on that bill and I hope to work with colleagues in the next term of Parliament on a similar bill. Those few who are opposed to assisted dying generally take a hardline Christian view against human intervention in death, but medication to prolong life is intervention. Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia argues that assisted dying is consistent with Jesus' message of love and compassion.
The Australian Medical Association does not support voluntary euthanasia because it believes medical practitioners should not be involved in interventions that are aimed at ending a person's life. Surely it is harmful to prolong a slow, painful and inevitable death against someone's will. Surely it is in a patient's best interests to avoid severe suffering and to allow them to die peacefully, close to their loved ones. I have been contacted by Doctors for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice, which supports Dr Rodney Syme, who assisted a patient whose oesophageal cancer made him little more than a living skeleton. He was unable to swallow and was nourished only by a tube running into his stomach. Medical practitioners say that voluntary euthanasia and assisted dying in lawfully defined circumstances is a final compassionate act of palliative care. I call on all members of Parliament to open their hearts and listen to their constituents, and to support those who are terminally ill and experiencing severe pain and distress to have the right to end their lives with the assistance of a physician and with their loved ones by their side.