Since last August, about a dozen representatives in Western Australia’s Parliament have been examining one of the most contentious questions of our time: Who gets to decide when and how you die?
The committee is chaired by Morley MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Amber-Jade Sanderson and is comprised of four Labor MPs (herself included), two Liberals, a National and a Green.
Ms Sanderson says she moved the motion to establish the Joint Standing Committee on End of Life Choices because felt the issue needed proper investigation by the state’s lawmakers.
“There’s never been an inquiry into end of life choices in Western Australia, and when I was out doorknocking for the election, I heard a lot of people on the doors and on the phone asking me about voluntary assisted dying, voluntary euthanasia, and it surprised me how often it came up,” she says.
End of life choices and voluntary euthanasia – or “dying with dignity” as it’s sometimes referred to – are important issues for the community, according to Ms Sanderson, because we’re all living for longer.
“We have an ageing population, we also have an increase in chronic and terminal illness, so while we’re living longer, more and more people are experiencing prolonged and painful deaths,” she says.
Almost 700 people have written to the committee to share their stories and expertise, including representatives from the Australian Medical Association, WA Health, St John of God, and advocacy groups such as Right to Life and Dying with Dignity.
Ms Sanderson says the most powerful stories she’s heard while serving on the committee have come from individuals, particularly those who have experienced the death or illness of a loved one.
Along with the submissions, the committee has heard evidence from advocates and experts, both for and against, at more than 50 public hearings in Perth, Albany and Broome.
One particularly poignant hearing concerned Motor Neurone Disease – or ALS, as it’s referred to in the Americas. According to the MDS Association of WA, people with the disease “progressively lose the use of their limbs and ability to speak, swallow and breathe, whilst their mind and senses usually remain intact”.
On March 2, the secretary of the MDS Association, Janice Taylor, told the committee of her experience caring for her late husband after he was diagnosed with the incurable disease.
“In the end,” she said, “I would say the last eight or nine weeks, he could do nothing at all.”
Ms Taylor recounted the day he told her and her immediate family that, one day, he might ask to have his life support unplugged.
“He said, ‘I want you to know that when I do that, I really want it turned off and I want you to arrange it.
“‘Don’t be sad,’ he said, ‘I’ll only say that when I think I can’t stand this any longer and I can’t put up with this life any longer.’
“And I can tell you, he had no quality of life. He did pass away in his sleep, which we were all grateful for, but he could do absolutely nothing for himself. Couldn’t hold a book up, couldn’t do anything, couldn’t drink.”
In her evidence to the committee, Ms Taylor described her late husband as a “trapped, beautiful, intelligent brain in a useless body”.
The committee has also heard from individuals and groups who oppose legalising voluntary euthanasia, as well as experts warning of the possible unintended consequences of changing the law.
Law practitioner Cameron Eastwood spoke to the committee about elder abuse stemming from so-called early inheritance syndrome, warning that changes to the law could “lead to an abuse of the worst and most reprehensible kind”.
In his opening statement, Mr Eastwood said there had been instances of children moving in with their elderly parents to care for them.
“Often by reason of importunity and not necessarily actual coercion, that parent then executes a range of documents to “keep them happy”, including enduring powers of attorney and, perhaps less frequently, enduring powers of guardianship,” he said.
The child, with enduring power of attorney in hand, can then move money from the parent’s bank account and receive Centrelink benefits on their behalf.
Mr Eastwood said relatives motivated by financial gain could use voluntary euthanasia to end a person’s life for financial gain if the appropriate safeguards were not in place.
The video recordings from the parliamentary committee’s hearings are available online at http://parliament.wa.gov.au/eolcc.
While discussions surrounding voluntary euthanasia are typically centred around terminally ill people and their families, there’s another group of people who have to face the harsh fact that, despite voluntary euthanasia being illegal, there’s nothing stopping people now taking matters into their own hands.
WA Police Union chief George Tilbury has called for voluntary euthanasia to be legalised because, according to the State Coroner, someone with a terminal or debilitating illness takes their own life every nine days in WA.
While the union doesn’t have a formal position on euthanasia, Mr Tilbury says attending suicides is often very traumatic for police officers and changing the law would lead to fewer suicides.
“In desperation, some people commit suicide in the most horrific way and it is our members who have to deal with the tragic consequences,” Mr Tilbury says.
“In certain circumstances, people should have a choice to die in a dignified way. If they did, there would be less horrific suicides and first responders would be spared having to see as many graphic scenes, most of which stay with them forever and could negativity impact their mental wellbeing.”
The Joint Standing Committee on End of Life Choices is set to report back to Parliament with its findings and recommendations in August, 12 months after the committee was formed.
Ms Sanderson says the committee will conclude its public hearings around May. Once the committee’s report has been finalised and recommendations made, it will be up to the men and women who represent us in State Parliament to decide whether the law should be changed.
If this article has raised concerns for you or a loved one, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or The Samaritans on 135 247.
Update: The Joint Select Committee on End of Life Choices has released its report, entitled My Life, My Choice.