Constitution of ‘the dying’: Voluntary assisted dying law reform in the Australian state of Victoria

Courtney Hempton,1Catherine Mills

1Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia.

In June 2019 Victoria will become the first state in Australia to provide access to lawful ‘voluntary assisted dying’. Voluntary assisted dying refers to ‘assistance to die provided in medical context’, and encompasses life-ending practices often distinguished as physician-assisted suicide and active voluntary euthanasia. Significantly, in devising voluntary assisted dying exclusively for those medically prognosed to die ‘within weeks or months’, the state constructs the bounds of a new medico-legal category — the dying. The principle aim of this presentation is to explore the category of ‘the dying’ as conceived in the Victorian context. Initially, we examine how the category of the dying is given shape by the articulation of guiding principles. We trace emergence of the category across the process of development of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic), beginning with a state Parliamentary Inquiry into End of Life Choices that was established in 2015, through to debate on the eventuating Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 (Vic). Subsequently, we explore ethical implications of the category of the dying. First, we critique the ways in which dying interacts with discourses of autonomy and choice, to demonstrate that relatively conservative medical criteria operate to circumscribe and make possible autonomy for some persons and not others. Second, we examine how the category of the dying establishes medical practitioners as gatekeepers of access to assisted death. We argue the category of ‘the dying’ enacted by the Victorian state contributes to a medicalisation of dying that ultimately undermines autonomy at the end of life.


Courtney holds a Master of Bioethics, and is a PhD Candidate, Teaching Associate, and Research Assistant with the Monash Bioethics Centre at Monash University. She has particular interest in the regulation of dying and death, and her doctoral thesis focuses on the emergence of law and policy regarding ‘voluntary assisted dying’ in the Australian state of Victoria. Courtney serves on the Monash Health Clinical Ethics Committee, the Natural Death Advocacy Network Executive Committee, and the Student and Early Career Researcher Stream Committee of the Australasian Association of Bioethics and Health Law. Connect with Courtney on Twitter @CourtneyHempton.

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