On Friday the Parliament of the Australian state of New South Wales began its debate on the controversial bill to legalise “voluntary assisted dying”. The outcome is still uncertain, but more speakers supported the bill on the first day than opposed it.
The debate was respectful but most of the MPs brought emotional stories of the deaths of loved ones to the attention of the house. Arguments ranged from “The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2021 is the most heinous piece of legislation ever introduced to this Parliament” (Dr Hugh McDermott) to “The bill offers a safe framework for patients whose death is imminent and whose pain and suffering has become unbearable to end that suffering at a time of their choosing” (Sonya Hornery).
Even if the bill passes in the Lower House, it is unlikely that it will become law this year. Before the Upper House votes, it will study the report of a committee which is currently gathering evidence.
Below are excerpts from the Premier, Dominic Perrottet, and the Leader of the Opposition, Chris Minns.
The Premier told the House that his own grandmother is dying at the moment from cancer and is in considerable pain. Nonetheless he said:
A strong society protects and cherishes its most fragile members. This debate today is not about the details of the bill that is in front of us. It is not about the strengths or weaknesses of the safeguards, or the rights of medical practitioners, or the technicalities of who qualifies and who does not. It is so much bigger than all of that. This debate is fundamentally about how we treat that precious thing called human life. Our answer to that question defines what kind of society we will be. This bill at its heart enshrines a new principle—that we can intentionally help terminate the lives of certain people to end their suffering.
Make no mistake, this is a culture-changing decision. Once we accept the principle of this bill, we cross a line and nothing will be the same as we will have started to define the value of life. It turns on its head a bedrock of our ethics—that we help, not hurt; that we offer hope, not harm. That is why every single member of this place needs to think very carefully about the ramifications of this bill because no safeguard can stand in the way of the fundamental shift we are contemplating here. [Former Prime Minister] Paul Keating called this our threshold moment “an unacceptable departure in our approach to human existence”.
Chris Minns acknowledged that his point of view is not popular in his own Labor Party. However, he felt that legalisation is simply too dangerous:
I am not convinced that any legislation can prevent an individual choosing to die in response to pressure, coercion or duress caused by others. No legislation, even one crafted with the best of intentions like this bill, can prescribe against the conduct of people with bad intentions. Once we provide access to a voluntary assisted death, it is inevitable that some people will act to pressure another to end their life. That pressure may be overt. It may be the demand of an estranged child or a plea for respite from a dearly loved partner. It may be subtle, a suggestion, a hint, an overheard conversation or it may be deduced without a word being spoken by a vulnerable person watching the impact their illness is having on others who they love. The risk of those situations occurring is not far-fetched or exaggerated. In fact, that risk is acknowledged in the bill on the very first page.