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Assisted dying laws a step closer for ACT residents

An ACT parliamentary committee has recommended changes to a proposed voluntary assisted dying law, including clarification of what is meant by 'last stages of life'.

The Legislative Assembly select committee made 27 recommendations after hearing submissions from individuals and organisations, including Go Gentle Australia. 

The release of the report brings Canberrans a step closer to a law to legalise assisted dying for eligible terminally ill people.

The committee’s recommendations to the ACT Government included to:

  • review the terms ‘last stages of their life’ and ‘advanced’ condition used in establishing who is eligible for VAD, as they were seen to be subjective and ambiguous;
  • provide greater clarity and guidance for health professionals on having conversations about VAD;
  • tighten safety and disposal requirements for approved VAD substances; 
  • require a minimum waiting period of 48 hours between first and last requests to access VAD, with the ability to grant exemptions where there is a compelling reason; 
  • ensure that health practitioners are paid for their time spent undertaking mandatory VAD training.

Read the full report here.

The ACT bill does not have a time frame to death, unlike the laws in all six Australian states which range between six and 12 months. 

In its evidence to the committee, Go Gentle Australia supported the ACT’s proposed eligibility requirements, saying that life expectancy can be difficult to predict and can change, particularly in the context of neurodegenerative conditions such as motor neurone disease. In practice, dying patients could deteriorate very quickly, making the process of accessing VAD stressful or impossible.  

Speaking at the committee hearing, CEO Dr Linda Swan said: “Suddenly, [applicants] have gone from a world where they were not eligible to actually now either needing to race at the very last stage of life, or tragically, cannot even get through the eligibility checks and balances at all,”  Dr Swan said. 

Dr Swan also welcomed the committee recommendation to review the term “last stages of life” in eligibility criteria, as it was subjective.

“It runs the risk of  effectively reintroducing a timeframe in the VAD process by requiring the health professional to form a view about how long it will be until the person will die,” she said. 

Read the Go Gentle Australia submission here

The two opposition members of the committee, Liberal MLAs Leanne Castley and Ed Cocks, wrote a dissenting report calling the bill “ideological and extreme” and recommending it not be passed in its current form. Instead, the pair want the law to be amended and brought in line with legislation in other Australian jurisdictions.

The ACT Government’s response to the report is due by 29 June. 

Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne has previously indicated she would like the bill to pass in 2024, with VAD to be available to Canberrans 18 months later. 

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith confirmed the bill would be debated "mid-year".

To expedite the implementation of the law once it is passed, the ACT Government has set up a Voluntary Assisted Dying Implementation taskforce to prepare the health system to deliver VAD services. 

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