Why I cannot support the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017

Why I cannot support the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017

Like other members, I have experienced the deaths of several relatives. My father died of cancer. I was very thankful for every minute I had with him up until the end. Like the Hon. Scott Farlow's grandfather, my father fought all the way. I am thankful he did that because it allowed me to spend valuable time with him. In debate on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 I say first and foremost that the Christian Democratic Party is pro-life. We believe in the sanctity of life, that humanity is more sacred than the rest of creation, and that God giveth life and God taketh away. As hard as it is to understand during grieving and suffering, we believe God made us in his image and therefore places immense value on each of us. I acknowledge the contribution of the Hon. Adam Searle noting the respect we show for each of our diverse views.

The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps said that your life is your own. It probably is, until you give it to Christ. The Christian world view is that Christ owns our lives and that they were bought for a very high price. On Good Friday and Easter Sunday many of us appreciate the death and resurrection of Jesus. It represents the hope that allows us great victory over the sting of death and to move into the wonderful promise of eternal life as coheirs with the Lord Jesus in heaven. Reverend Dr Steve Bartlett, the Director of Ministries at the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT, wrote to me saying:

We believe that life is God's gift and that our task is to protect and nurture life to the best of our ability ... We believe the value of life is not diminished by age, productivity or illness (or disability).

The Christian Democratic Party believes it is important to note that respect for human life from conception to its natural ending is not limited to Christian belief but is also documented in ancient Greece. The Hippocratic Oath was taken to the Greek gods containing the statement, "I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing." Doctors take an oath to, first, do no harm. Ultimately, this requires doctors to do all they can within their power to ensure a patient's life. Voluntary assisted suicide goes against everything doctors stand for. The Australian Medical Association is opposed to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, although some doctors within the association may have a different view. It argues that doctors should not be involved in interventions that have as their primary intention the ending of a person's life. Catholic Archbishop of Sydney the Most Reverend Anthony Fisher has stated:

The doctor-patient relationship is built upon trust. Voluntary assisted dying undermines this.

Further, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies has said:

Respect for human life is not just a religious value, but a foundational value for all societies.

This legislation, even with included safeguards, represents a fundamental shift in criminal law to allow one person to play a part in ending another's life. The defining aspect of our law is that human life is to be protected, human rights are universal, and there should be no exception. Voluntary assisted suicide denies true human dignity and reduces it to a subjective concept measured by categories which are constantly changing in perception. We believe doctors should always err on the side of caution. As a former palliative care nurse, I know patients have good days and they certainly have bad days. But when we start to legislate along this path we create a dilemma for our healthcare professionals. In the Parliament of Victoria Dr Carling-Jenkins quoted Martin Luther King Jr, who said:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

In the euthanasia debate in the Victorian Parliament Dr Carling-Jenkins went on to say:

It is a bill which represents injustice. If passed here in this place, we will be undermining justice everywhere, so to debate this bill is a grave responsibility.

Father John Flader, an author at the Catholic Weekly and the former director of the Catholic Adult Education Centre in Sydney, recently stated:

True compassion leads to sharing another's pain; [and comforting them through the process]—it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.

In No Man Is an Island Thomas Merton wrote:

We must be willing to accept the bitter truth that, in the end, we may have to become a burden to those who love us. But it is necessary that we face this also. The full acceptance of our abjection and uselessness is the virtue that can make us and others rich in the grace of God. It takes heroic charity and humility to let others sustain us when we are absolutely incapable of sustaining ourselves. We cannot suffer well unless we see Christ everywhere, both in suffering and in the charity of those who come to the aid of our affliction.

Like the Hon. Mick Veitch, I have been approached by various groups regarding coercive risk, elder abuse and concerns about the disabled and vulnerable. Disability advocates have written to us with real fears. They are worried, angry and concerned and they do not trust the safeguards. John Moxon, co-founder of Lives Worth Living, stated:

One of the things people are very poor at is predicting how they will feel about and react to a set of circumstances in the future ... people who fear disability or illness usually find the strength to continue and, indeed prosper ... allowing someone to elect to be killed (or given the means to kill themselves) shortly after receiving a diagnosis of a terminal illness would be criminal—because people need the time to process and adjust to a new situation.

Forecasting a terminally ill person's death is not an exact science. Evidence shows that doctors find prognostications very difficult. There are many examples of people living well beyond a prognosis of 12 months. Measuring mortality is not straightforward.

I take this opportunity to share with the House something that happened in my time as a palliative care nurse. In fact, a lot of the weighting on my decision about this legislation is based on this. Generally the life expectancy of patients admitted to the palliative care unit I worked in was approximately four to six weeks, but I can recall one instance where a patient actually went home. I cannot explain it, but somehow that patient returned home to be a wife, a mother and a grandmother. She continued her life. This patient was told she had a terminal illness and was admitted to the palliative care unit because her life was expected to expire and then went home. This concerns me greatly. I cannot bring myself to a place where there is an error of judgement in one case; it is one error too many. The Bureau of Health Information states:

While death is an important and clearly defined outcome, it reflects a combination of unmodifiable patient factors as well as quality and safety factors that are amenable to change.

If this bill is passed, patients could end their life when they have more than a year to live. This would rob them of the opportunity to reconsider their situation, which could have improved over time, particularly if accessing high quality palliative care. Assisted suicide could lead people to years of unresolved grief because they have not gone through the dying process—Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is renowned in this area—and that process needs to be gone through. I am concerned that people will be left with unresolved conflict if they are not able to do that. Death is not an individual experience; it affects family, friends, medical teams and even communities when people die at an early age. We live in a society that no longer appreciates this time in life—the time of dying. It is precious. Palliative care nurses and healthcare professionals appreciate it. Indeed, many thrive on the opportunity to ensure that patients are made comfortable in their last days. Our most precious time in life, our last moments, should be spent with our families, friends and others around us.

It should also be remembered that we live in an era of significant technological advancement. Amazing research and investment is being made into clinical trials that could well see a cure to some terminal illnesses—for example, melanoma. In saying this, the Christian Democratic Party acknowledges the deep and personal challenge that many patients and families experience when facing a reduced life expectancy. Many of us have loved ones or know of others who have suffered through a terminal illness. I feel enormous sympathy and compassion for those who are in pain and dying, and I do not doubt that many in this House feel the same way.

I acknowledge the Hon. Trevor Khan. He is a man of great humanity. He carries the burden of this legislation and what it means. The Christian Democratic Party also acknowledges that, sadly, some people in New South Wales die painful and undignified deaths. No-one wants to die a prolonged and agonising death but, where approximate life expectancies are given, we need to have a sensitive, equipped and high‑quality palliative care system in place to ensure people are cared for. They should be given the greatest opportunity for comfort and the chance to die pain free. That care is not intended to prolong life, merely to provide the patient with comfort and, hopefully, quality.

As a member of the crossbench, I am committed to upholding the confidence of the people of this State in our healthcare system. That means doing everything we can to prolong life. The people of New South Wales also need to be assured and have absolute faith in the Government's provision of healthcare services. I note the Hon. Adam Searle spoke about funding in the 2018 budget for palliative care services. The Christian Democratic Party believes in the importance of palliative care to improve the quality of life for those patients and families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems—physical, psychosocial and spiritual. If this bill is passed, patients in New South Wales accessing assisted suicide may never know the benefits of palliative care because there is no requirement for a person to genuinely engage with one of its specialists, only for the patient's primary practitioner to make an offer of referral. The Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine states:

There is a concern t hat the legislative proposal will divert attention away from the larger problem of service gap s for the broader population of people currently receiving end-of-life care in NSW, for whom the priority is access to high quality palliative care and support.

St Vincent's Health Australia is the largest non-profit provider of health and aged care services in Australia. St Vincent's has extensive expertise in providing end-of-life and palliative care. Dr Richard Chye, Director of Palliative Care, St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, stated on ABC Radio Sydney:

This is not about religion, it is about practice ... Palliative care is about relieving suffering by caring.

I commend the Government for its commitment to a $100 million injection into palliative care. However, across Australia people, including the Indigenous, the aged, the disabled, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, migrants, and residents of regional, rural and remote areas, lack access to good, quality palliative care provisions. I note the Hon. Bronnie Taylor commented on this earlier, but it was my experience as mayor of the Shoalhaven that some people declined radiotherapy because they had to travel daily on a bus to Wollongong. That was too much of a burden. So it was fantastic that we were able to get a linear accelerator in the Shoalhaven. Catholic Health Australia states:

Palliative care in Australia is currently chronically underfunded and under resourced. As identified in th e August 2017 report released by the NSW Auditor-General on palliative care services, NSW Health's approach to planning and evaluating palliative care is not effectively coordinated with no comprehensive monitoring and reporting on services and outcomes. I f passed, this legislation will threaten the provision of palliative care through resourcing an alternative instead of improving the current system to meet community need.

In Australia we are blessed; our palliative care services are amongst the best in the world. We must ensure that those who are approaching the end of their life in New South Wales have access to this excellent palliative care, rather than assisted suicide and euthanasia. Human dignity is not being able to choose the time of one's death, it is being aware that one's basic right is the right of respect for life. When death becomes the answer, as human beings we have lost the opportunity to go beyond our limitations, to try harder and to offer hope to these people. In conclusion, I leave the House with two passages from the Bible—Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 and 3:11-13:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die...

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in a ll their toil—this is the gift of God.