The Rationalist Society of Australia has called on the Albanese government to amend federal laws to ensure medical practitioners can consult about voluntary assisted dying (VAD) with patients using telehealth.
In a letter to Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus (pictured) and health minister Mark Butler, RSA president Meredith Doig said terminally ill Australians in regional, rural and remote areas deserve the same level of access to VAD services as metropolitan-based patients.
Currently, the Commonwealth Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act 2005 prevents or severely limits the use of telehealth in relation to VAD.
Other groups campaigning for voluntary assisted dying rights, including Dying With Dignity, have raised the same concerns with the Albanese government.
“Essentially, the Act makes it a crime for doctors seeking to support patients wishing to access VAD services if they use a phone to do so,” said Dr Doig.
“We know that doctors and health professionals have been advised to avoid using telehealth to conduct medical consultations with patients regarding VAD. This advice is particularly detrimental for terminally ill people who live in regional, rural and remote areas and who are unable to travel long distances for in-person consultations.”
In parliament this week, the government has introduced a bill, the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, to remove the federal ban on the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory from legislating for VAD.
In her letter, Dr Doig welcomed the Albanese government’s quick action to “right this longstanding wrong”.
But she added that the government should also prioritise reform of the telehealth issue. If unaddressed, this impediment would prevent access to lawful VAD services by many terminally ill Australians in religional, rural and remote areas.
A number of state agencies charged with administering VAD laws have raised concerns that, under the Act, VAD could be defined as “using a carriage service to counsel or incite committing or attempting to commit suicide”.
“Ordinary Australians know that VAD is not suicide – despite the dishonest campaigns of religious lobbyists and organisations claiming that it is. Most state VAD laws contain clauses intended to clarify that VAD is not suicide,” said Dr Doig.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman