Democratic rights

Knowledge is power – voluntary assisted dying legislation

Knowledge is power – especially when it comes to dying.

Bob Thomas

We are all familiar with the unavoidable ‘Death and Taxes’ cliché, and we are all receptive to the idea of minimising our participation in either. However, dying remains a subject we are often more reluctant to talk about despite its inevitability. Some people refuse to even make a Will, just in case it triggers some sort of cosmic consequence.

The reality is that all of us will die. Many of us will die peacefully and the lucky ones will not even see it coming when they die peacefully in their sleep. For many others, however, death will involve protracted suffering, not all of which can be palliated, because medicine has not yet achieved 100% success in mitigating the many unpleasant and debilitating illnesses that may precede our eventual demise.

Until recently, those unfortunate enough to die an unpleasant death had few options, and their deaths have often been absolutely dreadful, not only for the individual involved but their families and loved ones as well.

That all changed, however, when in July 2019 the Victorian Government finally implemented Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) legislation for those who found themselves in this predicament. No longer must we suffer to the end when that end is inevitable. Now, provided we meet stringent conditions, we are allowed to apply for medication which will let the dying person choose the time of their death, and do so peacefully, bringing to an end the suffering that previously they were forced to endure.

There is no pressure to take this medication. Often the mere fact of having that option available empowers the dying to endure their pain for longer, secure in the knowledge that they can bring their suffering to an end whenever they choose. There are multitudes of precautionary regulations to ensure that no-one is provided with this option unless they have chosen it freely, and without coercion or pressure from anyone else. Those who swallow the prescribed medication die swiftly and painlessly as they fall into a deep sleep and pass away.

There is, nonetheless, a catch. It is a catch that is discriminatory and does not apply in some other jurisdictions. VAD is only available for those who acquire knowledge of the process outside the doctor/patient relationship and who subsequently initiate the conversation with their doctor. Doctors are not allowed to suggest VAD, and nor can they include assisted dying in their conversation with terminal patients until the patient initiates the discussion. Those patients who do not learn of the option from external sources (such as this article) will remain blissfully unaware of VAD irrespective of how much pain and suffering they might be experiencing. However, once you initiate that conversation with the doctor, he or she is immediately released from that vow of silence and is free to discuss VAD from that point onward.

All Australian states now have VAD as an option in varying forms, with the territories currently moving towards the same goal. Nevertheless, it remains true that many Australians will be ignorant of VAD simply because they are ill-informed, constrained by language barriers or educationally or intellectually ill-equipped to source this knowledge independently.

Hundreds of individuals in Victoria have died peacefully since the legislation came into effect in 2019, and yet they are the lucky ones. How many more may have died in needless pain simply because of a key lack of knowledge that could so easily have been made available to them. VAD is an entirely free choice and a cost free alternative to suffering which every terminal patient can make, but only if they know that that the option is there for them to choose.

Bob is a long term member of Dying With Dignity Victoria Inc (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) and an active volunteer for the group (although not an official spokesperson).

Top Image by Jeff Kingma from Pixabay