Years of tenacity may soon pay off

DETERMINED: Stuarts Point's Shayne Higson
DETERMINED: Stuarts Point's Shayne Higson

Five years since Shayne Higson watched her mother die in agony, suffering from indescribable pain that no medications could help ease, she is hoping her efforts to see Voluntary Assisted Dying legal in NSW are close to bearing fruit.

“I have really spent the last four and a half years campaigning at significant personal cost but what happened to Mum really drives me to turn it into something for good,” the Stuarts Point resident and Vice President of Dying with Dignity said.

“I am determined to speak on behalf of all those who can’t speak up … with the experiences of the last few years, I can stay calm and focused and respectful of the opinions of others when I present our case.

“It is when I talk to those who are suffering that all my emotions come back … some of the posts on the Dying with Dignity website are simply heart-breaking.”

Two weeks ago the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 was introduced and given a second reading in the NSW Legislative Council.

The Bill has been prepared over the past two years by the NSW Parliamentary Working Group on Assisted Dying, consisting of the Hon. Trevor Khan MLC (Nationals), Dr. Mehreen Faruqi MLC (Greens), the Hon. Lynda Voltz MLC (Labor), Lee Evans MP (Liberals) and Alex Greenwich MP (Independent).

Shayne said that since the release of the Exposure Draft in May, the Working Group had undertaken a period of public consultation, receiving more than 70 substantive submissions from various health, legal, religious and advocacy organisations, all of whom suggested various amendments.

“The Group also hosted a series of community information sessions for the public across NSW to ensure the safeguards in the Bill meet community expectations. A number of amendments to the Exposure Draft have now been made to strengthen protections and safeguards in the Bill.”

With 73 per cent of Australians saying they are in favour of voluntary assisted dying and only 15 per cent opposed (Essential Research poll, Assisted dying - 15 August 2017), Shayne believes the end is in sight.

“The momentum is really there for this now and it is getting exciting. We are now making appointments with all of the Members of Parliament to speak to them personally and tell them why we need this law.

“When you look people in the eye and explain, it is hard for them not to be affected.”

She said the process with the Working Group had been an impeccable one of cross party collaboration and consultation and she felt optimistic it can now lead to the required law reform.

One important meeting she will be having this month is with NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, who has said that “up to this point in time I find it difficult to allow the Bill to go through”.

“I am hopeful by the time she examines the extensive safeguards in the NSW Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, considers the heart-wrenching experiences of her own constituents and reviews the extensive evidence from overseas jurisdictions that demonstrates that the vulnerable can be protected, she will change her mind and support the Bill,” Shayne said.

Some other points Shayne makes:

  • “Palliative care doesn’t work for everyone, which is exactly why we need this law … it is not for the majority but for the small percentage whose suffering cannot be alleviated. Even Dr Ian McPhee, an anaesthetist with 35 years of experience who is dying from a rare cancer has said that his suffering will be “nothing less than a form of torture” and this is someone who has the knowledge and access to all possible medications.”
  • “There are hundreds of dying individuals whose only legal option, to end their suffering within palliative care, is to refuse all treatment, including food and water, and basically starve and dehydrate themselves to death. Where is the sympathy for the hundreds of family members who look on as their loved ones die slowly with prolonged suffering?”