End of Life Law - Mythbusters Withholding and Withdrawing Life-Sustaining Treatment

Mythbusters: Withholding and Withdrawing Life-Sustaining Medical Treatment

Myth 1:

A person or their substitute decision-maker cannot refuse treatment needed to keep the person alive

No. The law allows all adults with capacity to decide what is, or is not done to their bodies. They can consent to or refuse medical treatment. Therefore, a person can refuse medical treatment even if that treatment is needed to keep them alive.

Myth 2:

A health professional who withholds or withdraws life-sustaining treatment performs voluntary assisted dying

No. A health professional does not perform voluntary assisted dying (VAD) by withholding or withdrawing treatment. Withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment is part of mainstream medical practice. It involves stopping (or not providing) treatment in situations where there is no legal requirement to do this e.g. because the person or their substitute decision-maker has refused treatment, or because treatment would be of no benefit to the person. It will be lawful so long as any necessary consents are obtained.

VAD is different in law and practice to withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. VAD occurs only when a person makes a clear request for VAD and is found to be eligible by an authorised medical practitioner. It involves the administration of a substance (either by the person themselves or by a health practitioner) which ends the life of the person. 

In all States, a person can only be eligible for VAD if they:

  • have a terminal illness, disease or medical condition,
  • are expected to die within six months, or 12 months if they are in Queensland or have a neurodegenerative condition; and
  • meet all other eligibility criteria.

VAD is lawful only if it occurs in accordance with each States’ VAD laws. Currently VAD is not  lawful in the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory.

Learn more in the End of Life Law Toolkit factsheet Overview of Voluntary Assisted Dying.

Page updated 19 March 2024