SPECIAL REPORT: Church in Western Australia enters new world order

27 Aug 2021

By Jamie O'Brien

Anna Corry smiling at the camera.
Anna Corry poses in her bed March 16 at Neringah Hospital, a palliative care facility in Wahroonga, Australia. The 50-year-old former nursing educator, who had endured an aggressive type of breast cancer since her diagnosis in January 2016, died Holy Thursday, March 29. Photo: CNS photo / Giovanni Portelli

The Catholic Church in Western Australia entered a new world order on 1 July 2021 with the enacting of the 2019 Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill.

The legislation, passed by the McGowan government on 10 December 2019, allows Western Australians who are terminally ill the right to end their life at a time of their choosing.

This means that the legislation will apply to the WA Catholic heath care acute, aged and disability sector, including St John of God Hospitals, MercyCare, Mercy Health, Catholic Homes, Southern Cross Care, Nazareth Care, Little Sisters of the Poor and Mount La Verna aged care facilities, in addition to Identitywa as a disability care service, and the University of Notre Dame Australia as a medical teaching facility.

Those who make the decision to end their life must be diagnosed with a terminal 1 illness or medical condition that will on the balance of probabilities cause death within six months, or within 12 months for some conditions.

The person must have decision make capacity in relation to voluntary assisted dying

During the process the person must make three separate requests for voluntary assisted dying: a first request, a written declaration and a final request. The written declaration must be witnessed by two people who meet specific requirements.

In an exclusive interview with Archdiocesan Communications Manager and The Record Editor Jamie O’Brien, LJ Goody Bioethics Director, Rev Dr Joe Parkinson explained how the legislation will be operationalised within the WA Catholic health care sector acute care, aged care and disability care organisations.

“Our services have agreed that we will not provide or facilitate VAD,” Dr Parkinson explained.

The acute care, aged care, disability care and community services elements of the WA Catholic health care sector represent some 2000 private and public hospital beds and more than 6000 residential and home care packages across Western Australia.

“The WA Catholic health, disability and aged care sector work to provide the best care possible for our patients, residents and clients, and for our staff who will have to adjust to the advent of VAD,” Dr Parkinson explained.

Dr Parkinson continued by highlighting that each Catholic health, disability and aged care service provider has agreed on basic principles that preserve the long-standing Catholic commitment to excellent end-of-life care, and each service will develop its own protocols for operationalising those principles.

“To begin with, we recognise that wherever we deliver aged care or disability care services, it will usually be in the client or resident’s own home setting and they have a right (under Federal legislation) to make any other care arrangements they like.

“So, we cannot impede their right to seek VAD privately, and we will comply with the VAD Act in providing statutory information about VAD.

“However, we will not authorise any of our caregivers to be involved in any of the steps required for the client to access VAD, including facilitating assessments for eligibility and helping them to obtain and use the VAD substances.

Dr Parkinson continued by explaining that the Catholic sector wants residents and clients to talk to them freely about any care concerns they may have, including seeking information about VAD or their wish to access VAD.

“We are training staff to be available for these conversations, so that we can identify and deliver the kind of care the resident or client actually needs at the time,” Dr Parkinson explained.

“If a resident or client wishes to consult a VAD Navigator they will be able to do so privately, even on our premises, but our staff will not be authorised to assist, other than to put the resident or client in touch with the Navigator Service for the purposes of obtaining information.

If a resident or client wishes to consult an external doctor for the purposes of VAD eligibility assessment and associated processes, they will also be free to do so. However, Catholic sector staff will not assist in any way.

It is also against the law for health care workers to raise the issue of voluntary assisted dying with a resident or client. 

“If a resident or client wishes to make private arrangements to receive and use VAD substances they will not be impeded, but again our staff will not be authorised to assist in any way,” Dr Parkinson emphasised.

“And we will need to pay close attention to the safe storage of and access to the substances,” he said.

Staff do also not have to talk about voluntary assisted dying with the resident or client if they don’t want to – also known as ‘conscientious objection’.

Dr Parkinson also noted that the Catholic sector does not want to see patients, residents of clients transfer out of their facilities for the purposes of obtaining VAD.

‘’Although of course we will not impede any who wish and are assessed as clinically safe to do so. 

“Likewise if a hospital asks to return a resident or client to our care we will accept them, even if they intend to pursue VAD, but our staff will not be authorised to assist with the VAD process itself,” Dr Parkinson said.

“Our basic stance is that we would prefer to look after all our patients, residents and clients ourselves, because we believe we are able to provide the best available standard of care in all of its physical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions. 

“That includes end-of-life care,” he said.