The past five years have seen a quiet revolution in the way we die in Australia.
Since 2017, all six Australian states have passed Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) laws. This gives people dying from conditions such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases the option to seek medical assistance to end their lives.
Now, dying adults can control the timing, circumstances and suffering involved in their death – rather than leaving it to chance, or worse, having decisions imposed by medical teams.
Terminal illness is the foundational reason to be eligible for VAD. Advanced age, disability or mental health conditions such as Alzheimer’s, by themselves, do not make a person eligible.
So what’s involved?
Accessing VAD is not easy or quick. The safeguards built into the legislation are there for good reason.
The six states each have tailored laws, with slightly different requirements and processes that determine who can and cannot participate. To help all parties work through the process, most states offer Voluntary Assisted Dying Care Navigators.
If you decide to seek VAD you must be confirmed to be terminally ill by two independent doctors, and have a life expectancy of less than six or 12 months (depending on the illness and state in which you live).
You must first raise the option with a doctor, who needs to have undertaken training to be able to participate. If the first doctor agrees, a second doctor must then confirm that all criteria are met. Once all procedural elements have been satisfied, and after a cooling off period, you can proceed to either self-administer or have the substance administered by a health professional.
All through the process, you must have decision-making capacity and be acting free from coercion. The process can be stopped at any stage, if you change your mind. Even if you do receive the medication, you are not required to take it.
Assisted dying ‘gave me my life back’
28-year-old Victorian Alex Blain chose VAD in January 2021, after 19 rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy to combat CIC Dux Ewing’s Sarcoma, an aggressive, rare and fatal cancer.
Three days before he died, Alex wrote that VAD “gave me my life back just as I started dying”.
“I handed my treatment and body over to medical professionals for over a year, and in many ways lost autonomy over my body,” he said.
“I feel empowered and now, as it is getting towards the end, I know that I have control back.
“I can show myself compassion and choose not to die of cancer. It is a small thing, but the peace of mind it has created is immeasurable.”
Alex said that applying was straightforward because he fulfilled all eligibility criteria, although VAD “needs to be more widely talked about”.
His family said the respect and compassion from medics meant Alex left every appointment relieved and with “a spring in his step”.
“The control and the ability to find peace gave him comfort,” his fiancée Liz said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that VAD has very little to do with death and a lot to do with life.”
A good death
Families commonly describe their loved ones’ assisted deaths as ‘peaceful’ ‘dignified’ and ‘perfect’. Their advice to others? Applications take time, so start the process early.
Find out more about Australian VAD laws and eligibility requirements below:
New South Wales
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