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Speech: Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill – Second Reading

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS (18:16): I rise to support this bill. It will come as no surprise that the Greens support voluntary assisted dying legislation as a party position. We have the chance here to ensure that people are able to make their own choices with dignity in their final days. Stories of family, friends or loved ones who are slowly fading away in a hospital bed or a nursing home with no other option but to just wait are absolutely heartbreaking and far too common. I believe each and every one of us would have our own stories to share. With these pieces of legislation, I always recall my grandfather.

As this is the 17th occasion voluntary assisted dying has come before this parliament, I believe, in the last 25 years, it is an issue that this place has grappled with for some time now. It is far from a simple issue with a simple answer. We have seen in Victoria that this is something that can be implemented effectively and compassionately.

The latest report from the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board released in August 2020 states that since June 2019, when the act commenced, there have been 348 people assessed for eligibility, and of that 272 were eligible; 231 permits were issued and 124 people voluntarily died from taking the prescribed medication. It was found that four out of five of those who took the medication were suffering from terminal cancer, and the average age was 71, although ages of course ranged from, I believe, 32 to 100.

There has been only one case that was found to be noncompliant with the Victorian act, which resulted from a failure to comply with a procedural matter and was not an issue of eligibility. As with the bill before us, the Victorian act does have a lot of safeguards, which are certainly necessary to try to avoid abuse of the system as much as possible.

However, a consequence of this is that the scheme is much easier to access if one lives in a metropolitan area. This is because having greater access to medical services ensures that one is able to more easily fulfil the more than 60 requirements within the set time frame—much easier. Only 38 per cent of the 348 applicants under the Victorian act lived in a regional or rural area, and it is accepted that the bill before us will likely have similar consequences.

The mover, the Hon. Kyam Maher, has described it as 'one of those balancing acts'. Whilst it is no doubt important to have these safeguards in place, we must also ensure that this service is equally accessible to all South Australians. Every South Australian deserves the chance to die peacefully and with dignity if they so choose, regardless of where they may reside.

As we debate this legislation I want to pay tribute to my former colleague and a former Victorian Greens MP, Colleen Hartland. She was the one who introduced the first voluntary assisted dying legislation in Victoria as a private member's bill in 2008, and she has tirelessly campaigned for it since. Indeed, Colleen and I listened to the broadcast of the previous debate in the other place as it reached that very disappointing vote in the House of Assembly.

She put in such hard work leading the debate in Victoria, which has of course led to the bill we have before us now and to the breakthrough in Victoria. In one of her many speeches on this issue she highlighted that on more than 30 occasions where voluntary assisted dying had been discussed across Australia—back then, when she made her speech—it had overwhelmingly been the Greens party of that jurisdiction behind those bills.

I would like to thank my colleague the Hon. Mark Parnell for co-introducing this bill and for previously speaking to it in the chamber and to previous bills. I am proud to be part of a party that has co-sponsored this bill and long supported the issue in many other jurisdictions. Voluntary assisted dying forces us to think about something unpleasant and complex that may make us uncomfortable, but our communities have shown their overwhelming support for this issue and I believe it is time we listened.

I have received thousands of pieces of correspondence, and I want to let them know that I am listening. There are three I wish to remark upon, and share not just with the council but also with the community, that have particularly affected me. One is from an aged-care worker in a local aged-care facility. That person wrote to me that they had seen many people suffer a painful, slow and undignified death. They said:

The pain is not the hardest part of it. It's the person who is suffering and wishes they could have a choice of how they leave this world. Nobody likes hearing 'it took so and so two weeks to pass away even though they were end-of-life.' I have had residents who have just laid there in bed for months on end unable to move, communicate and eat. The fact is, if you are bedridden at the end of your life you will not be showered, your hair will be washed in a shower cap, your food will be minced and your fluids thickened. There is no dignity, pride or joy.

Another that struck me read:

I am an ex-Catholic nun who has been diagnosed with a terminal bowel disease in 2020.

This person went on to say:

For me it's when I'm still of sound mind but in palliative care, that I want to choose to die, before my bowel explodes within me and I'm vomiting up my own faeces, causing me to be in excruciating pain. I do not wish to be under palliative sedation, dehydrated nor starved to death. I wish to be at peace and say goodbye to my family without trauma to them and to myself.

She goes on to say:

I believe that I'm dying anyway, and that God would not want to see me or anyone else for that matter die such an intolerable death. It isn't suicide or killing, it's dying at a time when its most dignified, respectful and it's of my choosing.

I thank her for her correspondence. Finally, there is one particularly sardonic piece of correspondence by somebody who is known very closely by myself and the Hon. Mark Parnell. Indeed, he is a member of the Greens family. He wrote to us:

…a year ago I was a perfectly healthy, gainfully employed, lapsed Catholic 44-year-old man.

Until that fateful day when I told my wife, 'I don't feel well', which turned out to be a golf ball-sized tumour in my brain that can't be removed. So, finding out you're terminally ill, not as much fun as it sounds. I sit through chemo every month to try to keep me alive. Chemo, also not as much fun as people said it would be.

Eventually soon I'll be dead. That's okay, happens to everyone. Morbid sure, but I'll be damned if I don't go out on my terms. No way in hell am I making my wife watch me wither into nothing where I can't feed myself or go to the bathroom, [expletive] that. So please support this bill.

To him I say, 'I will,' and to the chamber I commend the bill.


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