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'We've done it': ACT passes VAD law

Terminally ill Canberrans will have access to voluntary assisted dying in late 2025 after the ACT parliament overwhelmingly backed the VAD Bill 2023.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr, Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne and Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith after the passing of the VAD Bill 2023 - photo ABC News

"We've done it!" With these words ACT Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne commended the VAD Bill to parliament.

Calling the long-awaited legislation the “best bill for voluntary assisted dying in the country”, Ms Cheyne said the law and the respectful debate around it would set a future standard for other parliaments. 

The Legislative Assembly voted overwhelmingly to support the law, 20 votes to five. 

A momentous day

Go Gentle Australia CEO Linda Swan said the landmark vote was a step closer to every Australian having access to VAD laws.

“Today is a momentous day. With the passing of this law we are tantalisingly close to all terminally ill Australians having access to a compassionate VAD law,’’ Dr Swan said.  

For 25 years, the ACT and Northern Territory were prevented from debating or passing VAD laws by the federal parliament. Once that ban was lifted in December 2022, ending a political impasse, the ACT parliament moved to ensure their citizens were given the same choice.

“The ACT govt should be commended for acting so quickly and decisively once the ban on the territories debating VAD laws was lifted by federal parliament,’’ she said. 

“That was a 25-year injustice imposed on the ACT and NT. Today the ACT has shown it is more than capable of deciding for itself on these issues.”

The NT is now the only jurisdiction still to pass a law, although community consultation on VAD is underway. 

“We congratulate the ACT parliament for putting the needs of the terminally ill person front and centre in this legislation."

Dr Swan said the ACT law was the most patient-centric yet passed in Australia. 

The law includes: 

  • No timeframe to death - unlike the states which require a 6 or 12 month timeframe. However a person will need to have a condition that is "advanced, progressive and expected to cause the person's death"
  • Expansion of the role of nurse practitioners 
  • Penalties for individuals and institutions that obstruct access to VAD

Dr Swan said the removal of a timeframe to death for VAD gave patients and health professionals more time to plan for end-of-life and would lead to better holistic care. 

The expansion of the role of nurses was a welcome development. 

“It will boost health professional numbers involved in VAD and help patients access the care they need,’’ she said. 

Dr Swan noted the ACT was the first jurisdiction to impose real consequences on individuals and institutions that try to obstruct access to the VAD choice. 

“Parliament should be congratulated for putting the dying person's needs ahead of institutions' ideology,’’ she said. 

Ms Cheyne, who championed the bill, commended the maturity of the debate, and lauded the bill as one that “protects and promotes human rights”. 

She noted that VAD was once seen as a “niche” or “fringe issue” but now had broad community support.

She thanked a long list of supporters that included former NT Chief Minister Marshall Perron, who was instrumental in devising the world’s first voluntary euthanasia law, and Judy Dent, whose husband Bob was the the first to make use of the NT's law before it was repealed.

Emotional tribute

Ms Cheyne went on to dedicate the VAD law to her father, Peter, who died in terrible pain in 2016 from pancreatic cancer. 

"I know he could have had a better death,' Ms Cheyne said.

"There's no guarantee he would have pursued voluntary assisted dying… but he and countless like him should have had the option.''

The Government's amendments passed with little debate, and included clarifications in definitions of an ‘advanced’ medical condition and 'approaching the end of life'. The time period in which practitioners must accept and lodge a VAD request in the system has been increased from two working days to four, although strict liability offences for reporting remain. 

A proposed amendment from Dr Marisa Paterson, which would have allowed people to access assisted death after losing decision-making capacity, was not moved during the debate, but Ms Cheyne and Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said a separate process to consider this issue will take place.

Dr Swan acknowledged there would be people disappointed that there will be no access to VAD for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease in the ACT law, which is also the case for the states. 

“It is the number one question we are asked in relation to VAD, and the community wants and expects a solution. As a society we cannot put our head in the sand and ignore the fact that in the coming years more and more Australians will be affected by this terrible disease,’’ she said.

“However, including dementia in VAD raises many complicated ethical and logistical issues. More research and consultation across the community and health professions is required to find a workable answer. Go Gentle Australia will continue to fight for these conversations to happen and will be at the forefront of research and consultation.”

VAD will be available to eligible Canberrans on 3 November 2025. 

A Voluntary Assisted Dying Implementation taskforce has already started preparing the health system to deliver VAD services. 

Read the Go Gentle Australia submission to the ACT inquiry here

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