Parliament Gippsland South The Nationals

O'Brien to vote against assisted suicide

The Nationals Member for Gippsland South, Danny O'Brien will oppose the Labor Government's Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill (2017) when it is voted on in the Legislative Assembly this week.

Mr O'Brien said the decision was a difficult one and not reached lightly.  His reasoning is explained in the speech he gave to Parliament on the Bill which follows:


Mr D. O'BRIEN (Gippsland South) (22:27:48) 

Much has been said so far in this debate about compassion. I hope, expect and indeed believe that all of us come to this debate from a compassionate point of view. No-one wants to see anyone experience a bad death, but as sure as we have life, we will experience death. It is often a traumatic experience for those dying and for those who love them. I understand the desire to ease the suffering of someone in terminal pain. I have grappled with this issue, and I have tried to put myself in the situation of facing a horrible, painful death. I am particularly concerned about the circumstances of those with motor neurone disease, facing the prospect of being unable to swallow and struggling to breathe. I am sure there are other diseases or conditions that are similar. Not for a second do I dismiss or diminish that trauma.

If it were that we could legislate for the individual facing that painful death, a perfect storm of circumstances where they are of sound mind, where they are surrounded by only benevolent forces and where their autonomy of decision-making was unquestioned, then it would be hard to vote against assisted suicide. But the law does not operate in a perfect vacuum. If this bill becomes law, it will fundamentally change our society. It will change the practice of medicine. A fundamental tenet of the medical profession has always been 'Do no harm'. It is a contradiction that if this bill passes, doctors will spend most of their time trying to cure patients, avoid death and relieve their pain but that for some they will then seek to hasten death.

Compassion for the individual cannot override care for the many.

I will not be supporting this bill for a number of reasons. Fundamentally I believe it is too great a step for our society to take to support state-sanctioned killing or assisted suicide, whichever name you choose to give it. I do not believe there can ever be satisfactory safeguards to ensure this legislation is not abused. I am gravely concerned that the sick, the elderly, the disabled — some of our most vulnerable people — will be subject to coercion or abuse. We often like to think the best of people, but sadly not all people are benevolent. Elder abuse does occur. People are coerced into things they do not want to do. But my real concern is that even where there is benevolence all round, the mere fact that the option of assisted suicide is available places enormous pressure on those who are sick. It becomes a fallback, and even if unspoken, it places pressure on those who are dying — people who are already under stress and duress — to consider taking the option.

As palliative care practitioners told me, their patients very regularly express a desire that they not be a burden on their families. There would be, therefore, enormous pressure on them to take the option of assisted dying, even if it is not their true preference.

In some respects this debate has parallels with capital punishment. Both involve the state-sanctioned ending of life. I do not support the death penalty for a number of reasons, one of which is the chance that just one innocent person is wrongly killed. For the same reason I do not support this bill, because of the risk that even one person may die against their will. We have seen evidence from overseas of how euthanasia has grown once it has been introduced, and I commend the excellent work of Daniel Mulino in the other place and his minority report, which highlighted a lot of these statistics. His report also highlighted the validity of the slippery slope argument. I know some advocates of the bill reject it and say they cannot predict what might happen in the future. Well, forget the future. Even before this bill was introduced we had Alzheimer's Australia lobbying for it to include patients with dementia. I am sure that that pressure will grow in this and other areas if we cross this Rubicon.

Rather than opening up the option of assisted suicide we should instead be focusing on better provision of palliative care. I agree that this need not be an either/or debate, but I am pleased that the Liberal-Nationals coalition, if elected, has committed an additional $140 million to extend palliative care services around the state and ensure more people can die in their homes, supported appropriately and surrounded by their loved ones.

I have come to my view after very careful consideration of the facts, the ethical issues involved and having listened to the views of my electorate. I thank the very many people who have shared their views with me, and I hope they will respect the decision I have taken, even if they do not agree with me. I have read all of your emails and letters, and I thank you for taking part in the debate.

This is the most difficult decision I have taken, and likely ever will take, in public life and I want to assure people that it has not been taken lightly. It is my view that there are convincing arguments — indeed almost incontrovertible arguments — both for and against euthanasia. But my view is based on what I believe to be the right thing to do for our state and our society.

In this context I want to address one concern. Yes, I am a Catholic, although not a particularly good one. While my religion has certainly informed my thinking on social matters, it does not define me or my views and I am not voting against this bill because I am a Catholic. I must say that I find it offensive that people assume a certain view based on your religion. I reject the view that religion should play no part in debates such as this. Everyone has their views shaped by something, whether it is religious belief, political persuasion, family or experience. None of those factors should ever be discounted. I think the secular push to sideline religion from societal debate is a threat to free speech and a retrograde trend. People and organisations should be free to express a view and to attempt to influence public debate however they want, and I include secular organisations in that comment.

This brings me to some of the matters raised by proponents of this bill, including in the debate so far. There has been a view put that we do not have a right to impose our will on someone else's life, that individuals should be given a choice at the end of life and we should respect their rights. But every day we pass legislation in this Parliament where we impose our views and our will on others — every day. Philosophically I think we should stay out of people's lives as much as possible, but taken to its extreme that would lead to chaos. We pass laws, quite rightly, to say that you can only have one husband or wife, for example. We pass laws against stealing, assault and murder. Even on non-criminal or beneficent matters we pass laws that dictate how our children are educated, what medicines can be used in the health system and what taxpayers money should be spent on. All of these decisions affect people's lives, and we make them in the best interests of society, not necessarily in the interests of or respecting the rights of the individual.

Likewise there has been a view put that assisted dying is already happening so legislating for it is okay. For a start, there is a great distinction between withdrawing medical support or increasing pain relief and deliberately causing death. But to say it is happening anyway does not mean we should legislate for it. Drug abuse and use happens already — we do not legalise it, although some would want us to.

As I mentioned earlier, I am torn by the suffering that some people will go through at the end of their lives. Many have argued that passing this bill is about ending suffering. Indeed the slogan of Go Gentle Australia is 'Stop Victorians suffering'. But if ending pain and suffering is the aim, then logically why restrict the bill? Why not extend it to dementia patients, to people under 18, to those who are in pain but not terminal? Yes, we should seek to reduce or eliminate suffering, but not at any cost.

I think that there are a number of flaws in the bill and that some of the so-called 'safeguards' are not safeguards at all. I will not go into them all, but the diagnosis of a terminal illness is one, including that a person has less than 12 months to live. It is a fact — we are all terminal. We are all going to die. It is also extremely difficult for any doctor to accurately predict how long someone has to live. The definitions are vague. To quote the second-reading speech, a person must:

… be diagnosed with an incurable disease, illness or medical condition that is advanced, progressive and will cause death.

I think of my own mum. She has kidney disease — indeed a condition that I also share. Mum has been on dialysis now for 17 years. Her condition meets all of those requirements I just mentioned, and I know that she is regularly in pain and discomfort. I asked her at the weekend what would happen if she stopped dialysis, and she told me she would probably die within seven to 10 days. Under this bill she arguably would have qualified 17 years ago. Is that really what is intended?

I am also frankly astounded that we are being asked to support assisted dying and yet the actual manner it will occur — that is, the poison that people will take or be given — is not defined. We are effectively being told, 'Trust us. We'll work that out later'. This leads to concerns about the efficacy of the drug. Will it work? Will it be safe? Will the person die quickly and painlessly?

I have other concerns as well. Many of them have been mentioned already, including doctor shopping, the fact that doctors need not know the patient and the fact that their expertise in the patient's condition is not defined in any way. I am particularly concerned that not reporting the cause of death as assisted suicide is allowed under this bill — that is a straight-out lie in terms of what has actually happened — and that there is no need to formally assess mental competence to make decisions. There is no real way of ensuring a person is not being coerced. Doctors do not know what they do not know. They do not know what is happening when they are not there. In particular there is no need for a doctor to be present at death, so there is no guarantee that someone is not being coerced at any time within the 12 months of their prognosis. Likewise the person could hold those drugs for many months — indeed they could hold them for up to 12 months without any need for reassessment.

For these reasons and others I will be happy to support the member for Monbulk's reasoned amendment. I had resolved that I would not try to influence others on this bill, but as the vote nears it troubles me that it may pass. To any of my colleagues on any side of the chamber: if you have any doubts, please do not support this bill. At the very least support the reasoned amendment.

Like most members in this place, I come to the debate with my own experience of death. In 2008 my wife and I were excitedly expecting twin boys. Sadly at 34 weeks they were born in an emergency situation. Riley died shortly after birth. A week or two later we found out that Finn, like his identical brother, suffered an incurable genetic condition that would see him die within 12 months. Finn was a tough little fella though. He spent seven weeks in neonatal intensive care before we got him home. One day he stopped breathing in my arms. We revived him and got him to hospital, where he was diagnosed with meningitis. He survived that and came home again.

Finn's condition resulted in awful, awful seizures. Sometimes he would cry before they began, as though he sensed they were coming. At its worst he was having 40 or 50 a day. We of course would have done anything to ease his suffering. We had support, including palliative care, but it never came to that. Just past midnight one night at the age of eight months Finn simply did not take his next breath. It was Mother's Day.

I wish we had known what was coming that night, because, despite previously agreeing not to take extreme measures to revive him, we did everything possible to get him back to life. It was a comfort to be told later that he would have already been gone by that stage.

I guess I tell that story to emphasise the complexity of this debate. There is no straightforward end for any life. It is not simple and it is not easy, and it will involve pain for those dying and for those left behind — physical, emotional and spiritual. Likewise, this debate is not simple. But in the end I believe state-sanctioned assisted dying is a step too far.

Media contact: Tayla Hillenaar 0428 405 295 [email protected]

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