Premier Daniel Andrews has revealed he does not support voluntary euthanasia, but concedes momentum is building to change the law.
As state parliament begins a sweeping inquiry into end-of-life treatment, Mr Andrews has spoken out for the first time as Premier about whether terminally ill people should have the right to die with the help of a doctor, warning that “we need to be very careful to get the balance right.”
“I don’t support, at this stage … making the sort of change that some people would like to make, but I do readily acknowledge that there is certainly more momentum, and there is perhaps more public support for this change than there has ever been,” he said.
“My objection is not a faith-based objection, it’s not a matter of me imposing my personal values on the Victorian community – I’m loath to do that on any issue. But there are some safeguard issues, and there some balance issues I’m troubled by.”
Speaking to the Melbourne Press Club this week, Mr Andrews said his views on voluntary euthanasia were shaped from his time as a health minister under the Brumby government, where he realised there was a growing need to free up hospital beds to meet patient demand. Without enough checks and balances around physician-assisted death, “there are some challenges, particularly in a system where there are finite resources,” he said.
But the state Labor leader also confirmed he would introduce legislation giving Victorians clearer rights to set so-called “advanced care directives” about the treatment they want – or don’t want – in the event of future illnesses, such as cancer or dementia.
At present, patients can stipulate what kind of treatment they’ll accept when it comes to an existing medical condition, but the guidelines around future illnesses lack clarity.
The government’s changes could, for example, allow a patient to give their doctor a written instruction that, in the event of rapidly deteriorating health, they would accept intravenous antibiotics but would not want resuscitation, or a transfer to intensive care.
“I don’t think that only those who currently suffer a particular condition should be the ones who are able to specify what care they want, and what care they don’t want. I think everybody – with appropriate safeguards – should be able to express that view,” the Premier said.
Mr Andrews said the directives would be updated every few years, give people a greater say on the treatment they want before lose their decision-making capacity, and would provide doctors with guidance on how to implement their patients’ wishes.
A similar program already exists at the Austin Hospital, but the government is keen to roll out the system more broadly and set clearer guidelines enshrined in law.
The Premier’s comments come after the upper house passed a motion last month – put forward by the government – to set up a parliamentary inquiry looking at everything from palliative care, the practices used by the medical profession to help people manage their end-of-life treatment, and what type of legislative changes might be required.
Dying with dignity advocates hope the review will pave the way for a shift towards voluntary euthanasia, although such a complex issue would inevitably be the subject of a conscience vote for both the major parties if a bill was to be introduced in parliament.
The inquiry will be conducted by parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee, which includes three Labor MPs, three Coalition MPs, and one representative each from the Sex Party and the Greens. The government has agreed to provide the committee with extra resources following lobbying from Sex Party crossbencher Fiona Patten, who said on Saturday: “This issue is simply too important to Victorians for it to be not viewed as one of the most significant inquiries in this term of government.
“Already the committee has received 50 submissions in just a few weeks, and we are expecting more, just going to prove that the public is deeply engaged with this essential and critical issue – and I want make sure that every voice is heard,” she said.
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