Understanding the implications of Voluntary Assisted Dying
In December 2022, the Federal Parliament passed the Restoring Territory Rights Act 2022, which will allow for Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) in the Territories. The ACT government proposes to introduce a bill in the second half of 2023.
VAD, where legalised in Australia, has three main conditions with respect to the illness. These are (i) has a terminal illness, disease or medical condition, (ii) which is expected to cause death in less than 6-12 months (depending on the law/condition), and (iii) is causing intolerable suffering.
The first condition is rather ironic, though, as all people who are alive will die at some point. You could say that life is a terminal illness. So, this condition seems meaningless. What is noteworthy here is that psychological illness is permitted as a terminal illness, however, only in the Queensland law thus far.
The second condition means that death will happen soon, so the purpose of VAD laws is to hasten an inevitable death. Here the question of inevitability is important.
Death in an illness is never certain, particularly psychological illnesses. This requirement puts pressure on medical practitioners to make, sometimes impossible, predictions about when someone will die. The reason for this hastening lies in the third condition, VAD is somehow supposed to remediate intolerable suffering.
This third condition is particularly troublesome because it presumes death is better than intolerable suffering because if something is intolerable, then we ought not to permit it. Where this kind of suffering exists, it should be ended.
By passing these laws, governments are supposedly protecting the people from intolerable suffering by providing a solution – death.
As Catholics, we, too, need to respond to the problem of intolerable suffering. Pope Francis points out in Samaritanus Bonus that we should respond as the good Samaritan did, “drawing nearer to the man who he finds half dead; and taking responsibility for him.” This responsibility requires an investment, as care is expensive, both in terms of emotions and money. The good Samaritan invests both funds he has and funds he does not yet have, with a promise of repayment. He has already become invested in the person.
Some common reasons cited for VAD, and what intolerable suffering could be, is feeling a loss of life quality, dignity, or autonomy. We need to advocate for better palliative care and community engagement programs to help ease the suffering of those who are terminally ill or aged so they feel that their life is still worth living. These considerations are notably absent from current Australian laws, other than to mention that medical or palliative care will not be denied to someone who requests it.
As Catholics, we need to advocate for clarity regarding the care which is currently available. Such as whether current models of care are sufficient to meet the needs of the terminally ill, whether sufficient access to the appropriate care exists, and whether there is sufficient and sustainable resourcing for this care. We need to change the conversation around VAD as a medical intervention for intolerable suffering to a conversation about finding ways of caring for those who suffer intolerably. Unfortunately, when it comes to intolerable suffering, there are no simple or one-size fits all answers. The only certainty is that VAD is an easy solution. VAD is cheaper than care. VAD does not require imagination or investment in those who are suffering intolerably. VAD absolves the government and society of their care responsibilities to people by proposing an alternative “solution,” death which comes dressed as a medical procedure.
• Geetanjali Rogers is currently doing a doctorate at ACU, researching VAD laws and the concept of compassion