Senator calls on colleagues to stop referring to voluntary assisted dying as ‘suicide’

Si Gladman / 05 October 2022

The Rationalist Society of Australia welcomes a Labor senator’s call for her colleagues to “get the terminology right” in the debate over voluntary assisted dying (VAD).

In a speech to the Senate on the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 last month, Senator Catryna Bilyk, from Tasmania, rejected the use of the word ‘suicide’ to describe the end-of-life option.

Having previously opposed VAD – and also originally stood with conservative Labor elements in opposition to same-sex marriage – Senator Bilyk (pictured) said her “views have changed” and that she would support the territories’ right to legislate for VAD.

Senator Bilyk, who underwent treatment for a brain tumour last year, told the Senate that “recent experiences” had a profound effect on how she thought about the topic of death and dying.

She also used her speech to reject the use of terms such as ‘suicide’ or ‘euthanasia’ and explain the difference.

In a speech on the bill last month, her Labor colleague and Catholic Deborah O’Neill, in wanting to put on record a “faith perspective”, labelled VAD as “state-sanctioned suicide”. 

Right-wing Christian Liberal Senator Alex Antic also labelled VAD as ‘suicide’ during the debate on the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022, arguing that “despite the mangling of words that we see, it has to be looked upon as a form of suicide”.

In response to Senator O’Neill’s comments, RSA president Meredith Doig last month said referring to  VAD as ‘suicide’ was an insult to all those terminally ill Australians who have chosen VAD to end their suffering, and their families and loved ones.


If you or anyone you know needs help:

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

Senator Bilyk said colleagues who opposed VAD were using such language to “run the emotive argument” against the territories bill.

“You have to understand the bill. You have to understand what the word ‘voluntary’ means. We’re not forcing anyone to do it,” she said.

“Ending one’s own life by suicide is usually the result of mental ill health such as psychosis or severe depression. Suicide is a tragedy — don’t get me wrong — and every possible measure should be taken to reduce the incidence of suicide until we eliminate it entirely.

“By contrast, voluntary assisted dying is a rational act made by someone whose life-limiting illness is causing them intolerable pain or physical discomfort, and as a result they have no prospects for quality of life. Suicide tends to be preceded by isolation and loneliness — not always, but usually — whereas voluntary assisted dying usually brings patients closer to family and loved ones.”

Senator Bilyk also said the use of the word ‘euthanasia’ was inaccurate, as this was a procedure used to kill someone painlessly to end their suffering.

“With voluntary assisted dying, the doctor provides the patient the means to end their life and thereby end their suffering. So ultimately the power to make the decision remains in the patient’s hands. It’s important we make these distinctions clear when we talk about voluntary assisted dying.”

Dr Doig applauded Senator Bilyk for making the case on the need to get the terminology right.

“Australians right across the country know the difference between suicide and voluntary assisted dying. It is regrettable that a number of religious lobbyists and a number of politicians are continuing to make claims that are not supported by facts.”

Debate on the Restoring Territory Rights Bill – which will repeal the ‘Andrews’ bill that blocked the ACT and Northern Territory from legislating for VAD – will resume in the Senate later this month.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Image: Senator Catryna Bilyk (Facebook)

All the more reason.