Assisted Dying Law Gives Nia A New Lease On Life
Today, Victoria becomes the first Australian state in which terminally ill people are legally allowed to access a lethal dose of medication.
Many of the conversations around voluntary assisted dying (VAD) involve worst case scenarios.
But for Nia Sims, who suffers from an excruciating, incurable disease called scleroderma, the introduction of Victoria’s new law has provided her with a great deal of relief.
“I don't dream about taking my own life anymore,” she explains. “I am relaxed and I go out more. I socialise more. I spend time thinking about other things.”
After many years dwelling on how she might end her own suffering, the legislation now gives Nia confidence that she will have a painless way to die at a time of her own choosing – whether that be five years from now, or twenty-five.
From today, Victorian adults in the late stages of advanced disease will be able to request access to a lethal dose of medication.
But the criteria are extremely strict, with two specially trained doctors having to sign off for a prescription, and only one pharmacy in the entire state being allowed to keep the medication.
The patient must take the drug themselves unless they are physically unable to. This makes the VAD legislation distinct from euthanasia legislation, which would allow for the assisting person to take the final step to end the person’s death.
Victoria’s criteria are among the strictest out of the 15 jurisdictions worldwide that allow VAD or euthanasia. But despite the stringent safeguards, some members of the medical community still feel it is a risky move.
“If this legislation goes wrong, then people will die wrongful deaths,” says former Australian Medical Association Vice-President Dr Stephen Parnis. “You could have the wrong diagnosis, you could have a really wrong assessment of life expectancy. You could fail to diagnose depression, you could fail to access good quality palliative care. You could miss subtle coercion from people who regard their loved ones as an asset to be realised.”
But Nia points out that very few people actually meet the criteria under the Victorian legislation.
“These people who are applying for assisted dying, they're dying anyway. It's just a matter of being able to take some control and die a little sooner and not have to endure the suffering for as long.”
Other jurisdictions within Australia have had less success with VAD laws in the past – notably the Northern Territory’s world-first legislation in 1996, which was subsequently struck down by the federal government the following year. But Queensland and Western Australia are now weighing up similar laws to Victoria’s.
Three weeks ago, Belinda Teh left Parliament House in Melbourne on a walk which will take her all the way to Perth’s Parliament House, symbolically bringing the legislation to her home state, hoping to help Western Australians die with dignity.
Belinda went through the struggle of watching her mother Mareia die agonisingly of breast cancer which had aggressively spread through her bones.
“The pain became so bad that she couldn’t even roll over in bed without screaming,” Belinda says. Morphine and other painkillers had little effect.
“She asked her oncologist, ‘can you help me to go quicker?’”
Belinda hopes to arrive in Perth on August 6, and you can follow her journey and donate at https://www.belindasbravewalk.org.au/.
“It’s not about my mum, it’s about the other people who find themselves in the same position as my mum in the future and who will have the same limited choices if the law doesn’t change.”
For Nia, the Victorian laws are also reducing the mental suffering of worrying about how she will die.
“I need this law to be available for me to have peace of mind from now on.”
If you or someone you know is in need of help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.