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Voluntary Assisted Dying

Voluntary Assisted Dying is an ethically and legally complex issue with significant professional and personal considerations for social workers. While there are a range of views within the professional social work community, all practice in this space needs to be driven by the appropriate legal and ethical frameworks, including the relevant legislation and the AASW’s Code of Ethics.

Professional social workers are employed in a wide range of health settings working with individuals and families in acute care settings, palliative care, and long term care providing a range of supports around issues such as end-of-life and grief and loss. They are directly involved in socio-legal issues and ethical decision making, for example: advanced care planning, enduring power of attorneys, end-of-life decision making and planning, cessation of medical interventions and organ donation. As members of interdisciplinary teams, social workers play a significant role in addressing the social and emotional aspects and impacts of a person’s condition. This also includes providing supports to family members and loved ones. Therefore, Voluntary Assisted Dying is of relevance to social workers and within their scope of practice.

Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Legislation: Implications for social workers

On 19 June, Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Act 2017 will take effect. In preparation, the Department of Health and Human Services has prepared resources including the answers to FAQ’s for services and professionals.

It specifies that health practitioners may choose whether or not they participate in voluntary assisted dying.

The AASW anticipates that many members will encounter situations in which they need to understand the Act and what it means for their practice; and many situations in which they need to weigh up for themselves the most ethical course of action to take. In these instances, supervision – either one-to-one or in a group can be a powerful way of identifying effective, creative and ethical responses to contradictory moral imperatives.

WA’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Legislation: Implications for social workers

In August 2019 the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2019 was introduced into the Western Australian Parliament. On 10th December 2019 the Bill was passed and will be enacted upon Royal Assent. Following Royal Assent there will be an 18 month implementation period led by the Department of Health.

In preparation, the Department of Health has prepared resources including the answers to FAQ’s for services and professionals.

It specifies that health practitioners may choose whether or not they participate in voluntary assisted dying.

The AASW anticipates that many members will encounter situations in which they need to understand the Act and what it means for their practice; and many situations in which they need to weigh up for themselves the most ethical course of action to take. In these instances, supervision – either one-to-one or in a group can be a powerful way of identifying effective, creative and ethical responses to contradictory moral imperatives.

AASW Code of Ethics 2010: Voluntary Assisted Dying

To assist members in their reflection and engagement with Voluntary Assisted Dying and the AASW Code of Ethics we point to the following sections.

Section 3 - Social Work Values

  • Social work values: Respect for persons
    The social work profession holds that every human being has a unique and inherent equal worth and that each person has a right to wellbeing, self-fulfilment and self-determination, consistent with the rights and culture of others and a sustainable environment.

    The social work profession:
    • respects the inherent dignity, worth and autonomy of every person
    • respects the human rights of individuals and groups
    • provides humane service, mindful of fulfilling duty of care, and duty to avoid doing harm to others
    • fosters individual wellbeing, autonomy, justice and personal/ social responsibility, with due consideration for the rights of others.
  • Social work Values: Professional Integrity
    “The social work profession values honesty, transparency, reliability empathy, reflective self-awareness, discernment, competence and commitment.

    Members of the social work profession:
    • responsibly use power and authority in ways that serve humanity
    • make considered and ethically accountable professional decisions
    • maintain a high quality of professional conduct and behave with dignity and responsibility...

Section 5 - Ethical Practice: Responsibilities

Section 5 of the Code of Ethics describes practice responsibilities, based on or applying the core social work values. They provide a detailed description of how the values can be applied; and a benchmark against which to assess possible courses of action.

We believe that the following sections and paragraphs in Section 5 are relevant to this legislation.

5.1.1 Respect for human dignity and worth Paragraphs a, b,c, d ,e

5.1.2 Culturally competent, safe and sensitive practice Paragraphs a, d, e, f

5.1.3 Commitment to social justice and human rights Paragraphs d, f, g, h, i, l

5.1.4 Social work service and propriety Paragraphs a, b, c.

5.1.5 Commitment to practice competence Paragraph f

5.1.6 Professional boundaries and dual relationships Paragraphs f, g, i

5.1.7 Conflicts of interest Paragraph a

5.2.1 Priority of clients’ interest Paragraphs a, b, c, d

5.2.2 Client self-determination Paragraphs a ,b, c, d

5.2.4 Information privacy/confidentiality Paragraphs b, d, f, j

5.2.5 Records Paragraphs a, c

5.2.6 Termination/interruption of service Paragraphs a ,b, c, d

5.3 Responsibilities to colleagues Paragraphs a, b, c, d, e, j, k

5.4.1 Service provision Paragraphs a, b, c, e, f, h, I, j

5.4.2 Management Paragraph a

Other Relevant Areas

The Code of Ethics also describes the responsibilities that are owed to social workers. It says:

“In carrying out their professional practice responsibilities, social workers are entitled to reciprocal rights, which include the right to:

  • exercise professional discretion and professional judgement
  • redirect or refuse service on justifiable grounds, provided clients are redirected to appropriate support
  • freedom from unjust repercussions or victimisation for their ethical practice
  • support from the profession when acting in an ethically obligatory or permissible way
  • a culturally safe and respectful workplace
  • hold cultural, religious or spiritual world views and for these to be acknowledged in the workplace and professional contexts to the extent that they do not impinge on the other guidelines in this Code”

Ethics and Practice Standards Consultation Service (Members only)

The Ethics and Practice Standards Consultation Service is a free service for members and relevant others (such as employers of AASW members) to consider, discuss and process ethical dilemmas and ethical practice issues.

Our ethics and practice standards staff can provide both verbal and written information in relation to ethics and practice issues and assist in linking ethical and best practice decision making to the Code of Ethics, Practice Standards and broader ethical and practice theories.

The ethics consultation service can be contacted by email ethicsconsult@aasw.asn.au.

Alternatively, you can phone 03 9320 1044. The voice message is checked regularly and a member of the team will respond as soon as practicable.

Please note that the service is experiencing a significant volume of calls and emails and we thank you for your patience.

Information and resources can also be accessed on the AASW website here

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers