Doctors risk criminal charges over voluntary assisted dying
Doctors who help patients to take their own lives via telehealth, phone or email under voluntary assisted dying laws could be charged with a criminal offence after the Federal Court ruled the practice equated to suicide.
Photo: Bianca de Marchi/AAP
An application brought before the Federal Court in Melbourne on Thursday sought to clarify whether doctors who assist patients under Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying laws equated to coercing someone to take their own life.
Victorian general practitioner Nicholas Carr sought for the court to determine that voluntary assisted dying laws, passed by Australian states to allow terminally ill patients to decide when they wanted to die, did not equate to suicide coercion.
In his submissions, Dr Carr said the criminal law is there to prevent harm to vulnerable people from being pressured to take their own lives, but the assisted dying laws recognised the person’s own intentions to take their own life and is actually “harm-minimising”, as it respects human autonomy and dignity.
Dr Carr argued the terms “committing suicide” and “assisted dying” are two separate forms of death and should not be construed as meaning the same thing.
He also argued the federal criminal law would undermine state and territory legislation.
The federal attorney-general, who was the respondent to the Federal Court application, contended that when the criminal code was introduced in 2005 “commit suicide” referred to the intentional taking of one’s life, regardless of the circumstances in which that occurred.
Federal Court Justice Wendy Abraham ruled on the side of the Commonwealth, stating the definition of assisted dying is consistent with suicide in that they “simply bear their ordinary and natural meaning, the intentional taking of one’s own life, and the act of doing so”.
Victoria was the first state in the country to introduce voluntary assisted dying laws, passing parliament in 2017 and taking effect in 2019. South Australia introduced voluntary assisted dying in January 2023.