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Voluntary assisted dying (VAD) is now legal in NSW. However, a landmark ruling by the Federal Court last Thursday could see doctors who use Telehealth to consult their patients about VAD prosecuted under criminal law.

Melbourne GP Dr Nick Carr sought a legal declaration on whether the term suicide in the federal criminal code included voluntary assisted dying. 

Justice Wendy Abraham ruled that the criminal code’s definition of suicide covered the ending of a person’s life, and while it was not an offence to commit suicide, encouraging a person to do so was. 

“Voluntary assisted dying, while a means carefully regulated, and a societally approved means of a person intentionally taking their own life, remains a means of a person taking their own life.” Abraham said. 

Sections of the Commonwealth criminal code make it an offence to use a carriage service such as telephone, video conference call or email to counsel or incite someone to suicide. 

 “If that communication is undertaken using a carriage service, that would breach the Commonwealth Offence Provisions but be authorised under the VAD Act (Victorian voluntary assisted dying laws).” Abraham said. 

Dr Carr was disappointed with the ruling and believed Justice Abraham looked at the law too narrowly, telling industry publication newsGP he was particularly disappointed in the overly focused argument about words and definitions.  

“The real human experience of what voluntary assisted dying is, and how gentle and peaceful and comforting it is, and how different that is from the awful realities of suicide, that human experience never got mentioned.” Carr said. 

The ruling effectively outlaws telehealth consultations about VAD and puts patients who live in remote areas or are physically unable to travel at a disadvantage, preventing them from accessing end-of-life options.  

Some state leaders have called for legislative change. 

Queensland Attorney-General Yvette D’ath said the Federal Government must urgently act to amend Commonwealth laws that are standing in the way of people’s lawful access to Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD).  

“Medical professionals should not face prosecution for fulfilling their duties, nor should people be denied access to medical support based on where they live.” D’ath said.