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End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill 2020

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Thursday, 3 December 2020

Tags: Voluntary Assisted Dying, Legislation

End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill 2020, Dr Rosalie Woodruff, 3 December 2020


Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise to speak with great commitment and gladness in my heart to support this bill and the expansion in end-of-life choices. It will give all Tasmanians who are diagnosed with an incurable terminal illness the choice to end their lives on their own terms, in the arms of people who love them, in peace and comfort. What more could we ask for at the end of our time?

I want to acknowledge and thank the many, many people who have campaigned with determination and passion for this bill over decades. Natalie and Jacqui Gray, still here, amazingly, and tiny baby Tilly, have been the public face of this bill, campaigning on behalf of their darling mum, Diane. I thank you for all the energy you have put into this campaign.

There have been plenty of public faces of previous campaigns - earlier today Gideon and Nica Cordover came to watch the debate, as they had with their dear father and husband, Robert, when Nick McKim introduced the Dying with Dignity Bill 2009.

The Cordovas were here again when the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2013 was introduced by Nick McKim and Lara Giddings. By then, Robert had succumbed to motor neurone disease and Gideon and Nica had spoken publicly and movingly about the cruel fate of people suffering motor neurone disease, the hard truths about the way death comes and the need to change the law to allow for a dignified and pain-free death for others.

They were here again in 2017 when Cassy O'Connor and Lara Giddings moved a voluntary assisted dying bill again. The enduring energy behind all these voices, kindly and forcefully working for the right of all of us to die with dignity, has been Margaret Sing and the others in her group. I so thank Margaret and all the people who are behind the scenes privately, who have been working for decades, every day some of them, bringing us the evidence and the voices of people who have died long and painful deaths and the families who wish it were otherwise.

Bone-shaking grief, unbelievable longing and terrible dislocation: these are all normal feelings when someone you love intensely dies. Over time, most of us settle to a place of peace and our memories are sweet and precious, even when they make us cry and feel empty inside.

It is very hard to find peace when the person you love suffered and died a long, undignified death that no amount of medication could relieve. It is very hard to find peace when they were forced to take the only path left to them, which was by violent means, to end a horrendous and unbearable pain. It is very hard to find peace if they pleaded or demanded for you to end their pain, but there was nothing legal you were allowed to do.

We have all received emails from people who have had these experiences, who are struggling to find peace and who are looking to the passage of this bill to give them some solace. This bill will give those people some solace and it will end that situation for the future. It puts the choice and the decision to continue living with a terminal illness in pain or to die a dignified death into the hands of the person who is dying.

In the 1990s, I supported young gay men who had been handed what was then a life ending diagnosis of AIDS. They were young and full of life. They were not going to hand over decision-making about their medical treatment to doctors. They wanted to control the reins and those young dying men shook up history, the very foundations of the doctor/patient relationship and it has never been the same since. Good on them. They made sure that their doctor was acting for them and guiding them through the maze of decisions about what treatment responses they could have to the many painful ways that people died from AIDS.

This bill acknowledges the centrality of the patient in making the ultimate choice about how they face their own certain death. The role of the doctor will be to provide wise counsel, to give expert medical assessment of the timing and progress of the disease course, to provide access to the best palliative care available, to make sure that the person has fully considered the implications of ending their life and that they are of sound mind on multiple occasions when they make that final decision.

Since I first heard of Philip Nietschke's work, I have always supported the right of terminally ill people to choose when they die. My innate sense of what is right says that I have no place trespassing on that private decision for another person. It is the biggest and most difficult decision any person could make in their lifetime. One time it might be mine to make too. Death is the most personal experience and I do not think any of us can know how we will approach that moment, if we even get a chance to do so consciously.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and a neurologist; he was also a Jewish man and a holocaust survivor. He was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps and survived for years among daily horrors and torture, the death of thousands around him, including his wife, his father and all the rest of his family except his sister. Terrible things were done to him. Chance meant he avoided the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Dachau. He survived death by starvation or torture, even when most people around succumbed, through realising the power of his mind to give him choices about how he responded. These gruesome experiences taught Frankl the primary purpose of life, the quest for meaning. This quest was what sustained him and others who survived the death camps. In his words, he learnt that -

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we have the freedom to choose. This is what makes us human. We have imagination, the ability to create another place in our minds beyond our present reality, however grim that is. We have a conscience, our deep inner awareness of right and wrong, of the principles and beliefs that govern our behaviour, and a sense for each of us of what our thoughts and actions are and whether we are in harmony with them. We have independent will and the ability to act based on our self-awareness, free of other influences.

How people respond to the knowledge their life will soon end and that the end will be painful is entirely personal. We should respect and enable that. Victor Frankl also said -

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms, is to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Many people have written to me very clearly that they want to end their life at a time of their choosing, to transcend what they know will be a painful and undignified end and to take their last breath in the company of people they love. I want to read a few things from people who have written to me about this.

Graham said -

I was diagnosed in May this year with terminal pancreatic cancer and the passing of this legislation would give me the option of a dignified and less painful death. I want my family to remember me as someone who has made a choice to pass peacefully and with dignity and not as someone ravaged by the final stages of cancer.

Sarah said -

Last week my partner was diagnosed with cancer. Of course we are heading into unknown waters. I am full of questions and fears with all the best and worst-case scenarios swelling in my head.

You see, when serious illness occurs you have little or no control over so much through that journey. I do believe absolutely that having some control over the end of your life provides peace, removes fear, and while only a small minority may chose assisted dying, for all those facing the same mortality, the knowledge that there was this piece of control left in their life makes all the difference. They are still going to die. It is just the journey to the final destination which is quite rightly placed in their hands.

Cara is 35 and has been diagnosed with incurable cancer, and says she loves painting, bushwalking, and photography. She has rainbow hair. Friends have described her as the most alive person they have ever met. She sounds like a wonderful person but she knows that her life now won't be long. She said:

My poor health has taken so many choices away from me and I am grateful that you are fighting for me to have a final choice to leave this beautiful world on my own terms when the end comes.

Some people, like my father, choose to embrace the passing of life and he embraced his very quickly degrading body and the suffering that came with openness and spiritual depth. I sat with him over the 10 days he took to die from brain cancer after he had chosen to stop eating and drinking. I do not know if he would have taken a different path if assisted death was an option but it wasn't and so we did not talk about it, but I reckon he would have been open to it because he was open to so much of everything in life, exploring the experience and life and death in the most intense way he could.

It is our job as legislators to put all our energy into ensuring this bill is the best and safest it can be. I want to reassure the people who have written to me, and there have been hundreds, that I have read and considered all your views. They are both pleas from people who desperately want this bill passed because of what they are suffering or what they experience with their dearest peoples and also grave concerns from others about potential risks if the bill passes. We have a responsibility to make sure the concerns about unintended consequences are carefully addressed, especially fears that vulnerable elderly people might be pushed to end their life for their family's benefit or that medical professionals whose conscience cannot bring them to take part in assisting a person to end their life might have to be involved.

We have to always make sure the legislation we pass does not inadvertently impact on the vulnerable, the ignorant, the gullible, those with divergent beliefs, and the powerless. That is why I have paid so much attention to ensuring the concerns people have raised with me about perceived unintended consequences of this bill are in fact addressed. I am comfortable this bill provides the rigorous checks needed to forestall any capacity for a person to be obligated, emotionally bullied, tricked, confused, overwhelmed, or chastened into choosing an assisted death.

I acknowledge and thank Mike Gaffney, who has put enormous work during the preparation of this bill into widely consulting the Tasmanian community and to learning from the experiences of other jurisdictions, including those that have had voluntary assisted dying in operation for years and have themselves reviewed it thoroughly. I cannot thank him and his assistant Bonnie enough for how diligent, open and neutral they have been and caring in providing me as a member and other people in the community all the evidence and material about this bill.

We also have to make sure that in considering the views of people who do not support this choice we do not so constrain the conditions for access to assisted dying that the bar becomes too high. I was gratified to hear Ms Courtney make the point that fundamentally this bill's focus has to be on the rights of dying vulnerable people to choose the terms of their death and ensuring they can make an informed decision.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we all have just one life to explore, to express, to create, to nurture and to contribute. Life is a gift and hopefully sometimes it can be a joy. We are responsible for our own lives and I believe we are responsible for our own deaths. For all the people who have contacted me and shared the stories of the suffering death of the person they love and for those on that journey themselves today who want the right to end their life on their own terms in a painless way and for everybody else in our community in the future who would want to exercise their free will in this most intimate moment, I commend this bill to the House.