Cause of death: The obfuscation of ‘voluntary assisted dying’

Ms Courtney Hempton1

1Monash Bioethics Centre, Monash University, Clayton, Australia

In an historic transformation of the governance of dying and death, Victoria is the first state in Australia to institute ‘voluntary assisted dying’. As defined by the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 (Vic), voluntary assisted dying entails “the administration of a voluntary assisted dying substance” (s 3), “for the purpose of causing a person’s death” (s 3). In this paper, I critically examine cause of death in the context of voluntary assisted dying. Despite the explicit purpose of voluntary assisted dying to cause death, voluntary assisted dying is not registered as the cause of death; cause of death must be recorded as “the disease, illness or medical condition that was the grounds for a person to access voluntary assisted dying” (s 119). To explore this anomaly, I will (i) trace the emergence of the cause of death clause across the process of legislative development, (ii) compare to the state’s usual approach to recording cause of death, and (iii) consider the effects of the cause of death clause. I argue that the state’s approach to cause of death in the context of voluntary assisted dying problematically obscures the practice of voluntary assisted dying, and significantly transforms medico-legal discourse regarding intentionally causing death.


Courtney Hempton is a PhD Candidate with the Monash Bioethics Centre at Monash University. Her doctoral research is on the biopolitics of ‘voluntary assisted dying’, with focus on the emergence of law, policies, and practices regarding voluntary assisted dying in the Australian state of Victoria.

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