The voluntary assisted dying (VAD) bill has had a moderately successful journey thus far through parliament. After the 24 hour sitting that left many of us dazed by the daylight at 11am on a Friday morning in late October, the bill was delivered, by a reasonable margin, to the Upper House, allowing those of us in favour a modest celebration.
The ‘red room’ Upper House public gallery is not quite as accessible as the green. No lift for wheelchairs – my wheelie walker had to stay downstairs while I tackled the few short stairs with hands and feet like a mountain goat to the lower gallery. Having already spent dozens of hours witnessing debate as the self-appointed representative of the (visibly) sick and disabled in favour of the bill, it would take more than a few small steps to stop me witnessing the red-velvet speeches. I found the Upper House gallery to be more comfortable for my frail body, with padded backs on the bench seats and more leg room.
So far we have seen two short days of remarkable speeches ranging from the sublime to the disturbing. My nearest local representative, Bernie Finn, offered:
‘Indeed I might be tempted to reconsider my non-support of this bill if we could come up with a way to make it totally foolproof. If we could do that, yes, I would seriously look at it, because I do believe in choice.’
In contrast, Harriet Shing MLC, has the kind of nuanced grasp of this legislation that is required to grapple with its complexity, the need to place trust in the Implementation Taskforce which will spend 18 months planning clinical practise and trust in the doctors and nurses who will provide the care.:
‘I want to talk about the messiness of this conversation that we are having, the necessary messiness of what we are talking about…’
‘What I want to focus on today are the philosophical and legal components of the bill and the way in which we must necessarily combine those, like oil and water, with the intersection into morality, into religious belief, into the social contract that all agree to, underpinned in large part by the concept of doing no harm, by the concept of doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, and of the concepts of free will, of autonomy and of self-determination.’
Harriet’s analogy to oil and water exemplifies the difficulty, the bio-ethico-legal impossibility of getting this legislation ‘right’. There is no right. But there is a danger of letting the (impossible) perfect get in the way of very good.
At 6pm on the Thursday, after just four hours of speeches – my body told me that my neck and shoulders really needed me to lie down. I was also hungry, and decided to listen to my body, just for a change. I hopped in to a cab, was home in 20 minutes, and made a huge mug of strong Sustagen and hopped in to bed to watch the continuing speeches live-streamed.
Underneath my doona, in the bed where I spend so many hours, sometimes up to sixteen hours per day, resting, I had a twilight-zone experience. I had brought the red-velvet chamber, in miniature, with tiny people, making tiny proclamations about my big scary life and my big scary death, in to my bedroom, and in to my bed. The place where I have been spent so much time contemplating what I will do if and when my disease – scleroderma – finally decides to take me. Knowing that palliative care has little to offer those like me who are likely to die by lung failure or starvation, I’ve spent many long hours under that doona planning my own way of avoiding the horror of the end.
I felt heartened watching the tiny screen as a good number of members argued in favour of giving Victorians like me the daily peace of mind we seek. My body thanked me for continuing my observance of the arguments for and against in a horizontal position.
I was refreshed for an unexpectedly short Friday sitting, when the vote to proceed to the Committee Stage was decided by a division and was won 22 to 18 – a good outcome.
Yet, weighing heavy on my mind is the caveat expressed in a number of speaker’s speeches, that they wish to see the bill proceed to Committee stage for the purpose of further discussion, including the proposal of amendments. Bruce Atkinson MLC, President of the Legislative Council, was particularly measured and balanced in his speech, supportive and clearly empathetic in principle but concerned about a number of details around safeguards which it seems likely will be explored in the proposal of amendments. He concluded his speech as follows:
‘because apart from anything else, even if this bill does not pass this house on this occasion, I think that it is important for future reference and for the community to actually understand this whole euthanasia debate: its complexity and the attempt that has been made by the government on this occasion, with the support of many members and the support of many people in the community, to try and address dignified death for people to choose how they should pass.’
The VAD bill hangs in the balance. It appears that it will won or lost by a small margin. Right-to-life groups and other religious organisations are rallying their troops for further bombardment of MLCs demanding a no vote, and they do so with no shortage of monetary resources. Form letters will continue to pour in to the offices of our representatives.
Now, more than ever, if you support having this choice it is important to show an interest in this political process. If you want this bill, for yourself, your family, for Victorians – tell your Upper House MP. It’s not too late.
Go to www.gogentleaustralia.org.au and enter your postcode to find out who your Upper House representative(s) are. You can head over to https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/hansard and read their speech to get a feel for how they currently stand, or you can call their office, speak to staff. Find out how they voted last week and why? Write a letter. If nothing else, an e-mail.
Perhaps there are actually three things certain in life – death, taxes and politics. I leave you with the voice of one of my local Western Metropolitan representatives, Khalil Eideh MLC, who gave me reason to smile before I shuffled off home to bed:
‘Politics be damned here, because we must do what is right for the person, and the very well thought-out requirements of the clauses of the bill will ensure death with dignity, if that be their choice.’