Faith-based hospitals denied a say in patient deaths

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Faith-based hospitals in Queensland will not be able to deny entry to outside ­doctors to help terminally ill ­patients die, new legislation proposes.

The Queensland government has rejected pleas by the churches for institutional protection from the widest voluntary assisted dying law to go before an Australian parliament.

The legislation leaves the private, church-backed institutions powerless to intervene if a patient insists on being assessed and potentially dosed with death-dealing drugs on the premises.

Faith-based hospitals provide more than a quarter of all hospital beds in Queensland.

The bill notionally gives individual health workers and institutions the capacity to opt out of the assisted dying scheme. That is, except in cases when it would cause unnecessary suffering to transfer the ­patient concerned to another centre, a loophole that has been seized on by church leaders to argue they will be roped into the program.

Some ministers at Monday’s cabinet discussion wanted the churches’ push for a right of conscientious objection addres­sed.

However, cabinet agreed the legislation would remain intact and be augmented by clinical guidelines setting out how Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) was to interact with the faith-based hospital and care sector.

The numbers in the single-chamber Queensland parliament, where the government commands a five-seat majority, mean the legislation will pass the conscience vote.

While some are said to be wavering, not one Labor MP has signalled an intention to vote no, while the two Green MPs and Noosa’s independent support VAD. Three Gold Coast Liberal National Party parliamentarians say they support assisted dying.

Amendments to the bill, granting institutions the capacity to conscientiously object are being mooted.

Catholic Health Australia’s mission director, Rebecca Burdick Davies, is disappointed a “flawed bill” has been retained.

“He’s well aware of the shortcomings of this bill which purport to offer choice but in fact deny it. Guidelines will always fall short of legislation,” she says.

St Vincent’s Health Australia, a Catholic provider that runs private hospitals is concerned about staff being forced to witness voluntary assisted dying if the bill stood.

“If passed in its current form, doctors and nurse practitioners will be able to enter Queensland hospitals – un-accredited by the hospital, unannounced, without permission – and assist patients in their premature death,” chief executive Toby Hall says.

The guidelines are yet to be ­finalised, but would require VAD doctors to inform private hospitals they were visiting and consult with in-house medical staff about whether the terminal patient could be moved to one that ­embraced voluntary euthanasia.

They will also canvass ways to minimise the ­impact on other patients – or residents in the case of nursing homes – and means by which faith-based care centres could ­advertise their objection to VAD.

In June, Liberal-governed South Australia became the first state to extend conscientious ­objection from individual doctors to faith-based hospitals. This allows them to refuse to authorise or permit “any part” of the VAD process.

State laws in Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania are largely silent on institutional conscientious objection.

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