Euthanasia bill falls short on freedom of conscience

Objecting students unprotected, refusal may incur civil, criminal liability

Sean Murphy*

Western Australia’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2019 includes provisions intended to protect all registered health practitioners who refuse to participate for reasons of conscience. By virtue of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (Western Australia) this includes nurses, midwives, pharmacists, radiologists, psychologists and other professions.

However, the bill explicitly excludes students, probably to ensure that only non-student practitioners are permitted to accept and process requests, assess patients and provide euthanasia or assisted suicide (EAS).  Unfortunately, the effect of this exclusion is that nothing in the bill prevents students from being required to participate in all aspects of EAS delivery under the direction of a fully qualified registered health practitioner, or making such practical training a requirement for professional qualification.  This would be inconsistent with one of the guiding principles in the bill (Section 4(1)j), so it may be an oversight that will be corrected during the legislative process.

Fully qualified registered health practitioners may refuse to participate in the request and assessment process, prescription, supply or administration of lethal drugs, and to be present when the drugs are administered (Section 9(1)).  The bill further states that, by identifying these actions, it does not intend “to limit the circumstances in which a registered health practitioner may refuse” to do them (Section 9(2)).  This would seem to extend protection to include refusal to do do things not specified in the section, but obviously related to providing euthanasia or assisted suicide, like setting an intravenous line for administration of lethal drugs.  That interpretation is consistent with the definition of voluntary assisted dying, whichincludes “steps reasonably related to such administration.”  Clearly, this would include any of the actions explicitly required by the law, such as assessments, notifications, acting as a witness, dispensing lethal drugs, filing reports, etc., as well as setting intravenous lines and other technical preparations for providing EAS.

Sections 112 and 113 provide protection from civil and criminal liability and disciplinary proceedings for those involved in processing and fulfilling EAS requests if they act in accordance with the law. Section 113(4) extends this protection to omissions in accordance with the bill, but not to the refusals it permits.  Since “omission” does not mean “refusal”, this may reflect either an oversight in drafting or a deliberate decision to expose objecting practitioners to liability.

What could prove to be most contentious is the requirement in Section 19(5)b that an objecting physician give a patient “information approved by the CEO” of a public service department, perhaps a health department.  Whether this will be acceptable to objecting practitioners will depend entirely on the substance of the “approved” information.  It is unlikely to be problematic if it consists of general information about how to contact other physicians or health authorities.  On the other hand, resistance is likely if the “approved” information portrays euthanasia and assisted suicide as morally acceptable services or directs patients to EAS providers.  Objecting practitioners may refuse to comply if the law effectively compels them to express support for moral views they reject, or forces them to facilitate what they consider to be immoral or unethical acts by directing patients to EAS providers.

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