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The history and current push for legal euthanasia

Kath Woolf

The euthanasia ‘push’ is currently relentless in Australia. Newspaper articles and letters in favour of “death with dignity”, “giving people choice”, “taking control of dying” appear almost daily. Pressure on governments not only from the older pro-euthanasia groups but from new players, though one suspects their members are recycled from organisations like Exit International.

For example, Australia21 is a self-styled ‘think tank’ located in Canberra. Having been repulsed by the Federal Government last year in respect of their recommendation that all drugs be legalised, their attention is now focused on euthanasia. Late in January Australia21 held a conference on euthanasia and assisted suicide in Brisbane. In press releases these academics and mates say they are opening the debate on euthanasia. This is an absurd claim: the debate has been well and truly hotly contested, not least in the context of a raft of pro-euthanasia Bills in a number of Australian States in recent years.

In February the ABC in its series ‘Big Ideas” telecast a debate on the topic: Should euthanasia be legalised? The speakers in favour included, of course, Philip Nitschke, Doctor Death. The program was repeated the following Sunday. While the media gave extensive coverage to Tim Matheson’s silly gaffe at the Prime Minister’s XI reception, there was almost no mention of the serious topic he addressed, that is, the high rate of suicide by men between the ages of 15 and 45 years of age. In large part he attributed this tragic situation to a lack of social support in combating overwhelming feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. He was right on the ball.

Australian experience with euthanasia legislation

The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT) (ROTI Act) gave Australia the distinction of being the first jurisdiction in a Western country to legalise euthanasia. Its chief architect and advocate and sole practitioner of delivering death during the short life of the ROTI Act was Dr Philip Nitschke, former Director of Exit International. Seven applicants for death by injection were all accepted and four were euthanased before the Federal Parliament repealed the ROTI by passage of the Euthanasia Laws Act 1996 sponsored by Mr Kevin Andrews. This latter Act also removed from the Territories the power to legislate on euthanasia.

Beginning in 2007 the then former Greens leader Senator Brown introduced a number of Bills seeking to reverse the situation and thus enable the Australian Territories to approve euthanasia. Dr Nitschke keenly supported Senator Brown’s various Bills; he hoped that success in any State would “put immense pressure on other States”, the best chance of success being “Tasmania where you’ve got the Greens in coalition with Labor” (interview with Green Left Review, September 25, 2010). The ACT is another likely place to achieve Nitschke’s aims. Its Labor Government depends on the vote of a Greens MLA; and the ACT ALP Branch Platform 2008-09 includes approval of euthanasia.

With the retirement of Brown from the Senate, Senator Di Natale’s Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthana- sia Legislation) Amendment Bill 2012 continues the Greens determination to achieve the legalisation of euthanasia.

Suicide and Australian Governments

“Voluntary euthanasia’ is simply assisted suicide, a doctor usually the intended deliverer of the assistance. It would be perverse for the Federal Parliament to pass any measure facilitating assisted suicide in light of the Commonwealth’s and States’ long-standing interest in, and active support of efforts to prevent suicide.

In 2004 the Commonwealth established the New National Advisory Council on Suicide Prevention; and in 2005 amended the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) to include sections 474.29A and 474.29B, making it an offence to transmit, through telephone or internet, suicide related material with the intention, directly or indirectly, of counselling or inciting a person to commit or attempt to commit suicide.

In July 2006, the Council of Australian Governments by the National Action Plan on Mental Health 2006 – 2011, agreed to improve mental health services through promotion and prevention programmes, including suicide prevention.

In June 2010 the Senate Community Affairs References Committee’s Report: The Hidden Toll: Suicide in Australia recommended an economic assessment of the cost of suicide and attempted suicide in Australia and the development of a national suicide prevention and awareness campaign. The campaign was to include a targeted approach to high-risk groups, in particular young people, persons in rural and remote areas, men, and indigenous populations.Through cooperation with business and community groups the aim was to reduce the suicide rate by 2020.

In 2012 the Australian Government responded to the Senate Report, agreeing to support measures to reduce the damage suicide causes, noting that more than 2000 Australians take their lives every year – a tragedy for individuals, for families, for communities and for the whole nation.

Acknowledging that the causes of suicide are numerous, including issues relating to isolation, disengagement, or instability in employment, housing, financial stress or personal relationships, the Australian Government has increased funding of the National Suicide Prevention Strategy (NSPS), from $8.6 million in 2005–06 to $23.8 million in 2010–11.

Before the 2010 election the Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard MP, committed the Australian Government to re- double its efforts to prevent this tragedy, making clear that mental health is an important part of a second term agenda and announcing a $274 million Mental Health:Taking Action to Tackle Suicide package, agreeing with State, Territory and local governments to set a target to reduce the suicide rate by the year 2020.

The opening words of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing are worth quoting:

“Every year in Australia suicide claims the lives of around 2000 Australians placing it ahead of road traffic accidents and skin cancer as a cause of death. For young people aged 15 to 24, it is the number one cause of death. ...... New, strong and ever growing community engagement with these issues now place mental health and suicide prevention firmly on the national policy agenda for political parties of all ..... (Foreword: Report on early intervention programs aimed at preventing youth suicide. July 2011) [emphasis added]

The first Report of the Australian Government National Mental Health Commission: A Contributing Life: 2012 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Pre- vention. said that “[E]ven the most disadvantaged should be able to lead a contributing life. ... enriched with close connections to family and friends, good health and wellbeing to allow those connections to be enjoyed, having something to do each day that provides meaning and purpose”.(p 6) Noting estimates of over 65,000 reported suicide attempts in Australia each year, the Commission recommended a co-ordinated effort to “prevent and reduce suicides, and support those who attempt suicide through timely local responses and reporting”.

Perverse public policy outcome if Di Natale’s Bill were passed

The passage of this Bill with the potential to enable the legalisation of euthanasia in any of the Territories would be an extraordinary reversal of the commitment of all Australians. Further it would not be in the best interests for the practice of medicine in those regions. Inevitably ‘specialist’ outlets would develop where the ‘business’ would not be expert diagnosis of patients’ health nor referral to palliative care facilities, but delivery of death. In particular it would be a tragedy to have euthanasia legalised in the National Capital which would quickly become the ‘death capital’ of Australia.

A Church of England cleric wrote recently in the (UK) Guardian that the romanticisation of suicide in earlier times has been replaced by the equally unfortunate current tendency to over-expose ‘celebrity suicide’. There was nothing glamorous about taking one’s own life, wrote Father Giles Fraser of St Mary’s Newington in south London, giving this advice: “... If suicide is on your mind, forget the existentialists and the poets. Phone a helpline. Go and see your GP. Talk to friends. Stop drinking. Misery is survivable. And hold fast to the belief that a brighter day will dawn."

This is the reasonable and compassionate response to a person’s demand for assistance in committing suicide. On Nitschke’s own admission fatigue, frailty, depression and other symptoms contributed more to the suffering of patients he killed than any pain arising from their condition. Nonetheless all seven applicants for death were approved. (The Lancet, Vol 352, 1998). Nitschke has advocated easily available death for anyone who wants it, including “troubled teens”. He has even advocated euthanasia drugs be available “in the supermarket so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing” ! (US Online Review interview with Nitschke 5 June 2001).

When Nitschke denied his extreme position my correction was refused by the Canberra Times in 2011; a complaint to the Press Council was rejected. The Australian has not carried my letter about the same matter in February this year. It is bewildering that despite the efforts by governments at all levels to fund and support the attack on the blight of suicide the advocates for death are so favoured in our media. Reverse this bias by writing to your State/ Territory Senators asking them to reject Senator Di Natale’s Bill.

Mrs. Kath Woolf, BA (Hons), B.Ed, LL.B, is Acting Co-ordinator for Endeavour Forum in the ACT

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