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Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in Australia

From the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of England and WalesIn 1995, the Northern Territory of Australia became the first legislature in the world to pass a law for voluntary euthanasia. This came into effect on July 1st 1996. Four Australians, all dying from cancer, legally received the help of a doctor to a peaceful death, before the Federal Parliament overturned the Act in March 1997. 

The official title of the Northern Territory Act on assisted dying was the 'Rights of the Terminally Ill Act'. It was passed on 25 May 1995 by a vote of 15 to 10, after a debate lasting more than 14 hours. In February 1996, an amendment bill to look at some small problems in the law was passed. This made the eligibility assessment requirements much more strict. Instead of the original Act's 'one doctor, one psychiatrist' assessment, the patient now had to have the agreement of the following four doctors. 

1. The medical practitioner who would help the patient to die. 

2. An independent medical practitioner with specialist qualifications in the patient's terminal illness. 

3. A qualified psychiatrist to confirm that the patient is not suffering from treatable clinical depression or other mental illness which would affect his or her judgement. 

4. A medical practitioner with qualifications in palliative care to explain all the palliative care options. 

The patient must get the first three medical practitioners to sign the request form. 

On 1 July 1996 the Act officially came into force. The first patient who wanted to use it, cancer sufferer Max Bell, could not get the signature of a specialist in his disease. The specialists were worried that they could face criminal charges if they helped him, before the results of a legal challenge to the law were announced. 

The fight to keep the law

This challenge to the law was brought by two pro-life campaigners, Dr Chris Wake and Reverend Gondarra. On 1 and 2 July 1996, the challenge was heard before the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. They argued that the Act was not valid, as the Territory did not have the legal power to make a law that would allow the taking of a life. On 24 July, the judges gave a decision which dismissed this challenge by a majority of 2 to 1. They agreed that the law was valid and constitutional. An appeal to the High Court also resulted in the law being declared valid. In another attempt to throw out the 'Rights of the Terminally ill Act', a repeal bill was brought before the Northern Territory Parliament in August 1996, but was defeated by 14 votes to 11. 

Federal opposition to the law – the Andrews bill

Having failed in these challenges, the opposition, who were mainly Catholic, decided to overturn the Northern Territory law through the Australian Federal Parliament. The 'Euthanasia Laws Bill' was drafted to take away the powers of the legislative assemblies of the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island to make laws: 

"...which permit or have the effect of permitting...the form of intentional killing of another called euthanasia (which includes mercy killing) or the assisting of a person to terminate his or her life." 

On 9 September 1996, Kevin Andrews, a Liberal MP, introduced a Private Member's Bill into the House of Representatives. It had the full backing of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition party. Because of this, the Bill went through Parliament especially quickly. 

On 25 March 1997 this bill, already passed by the Lower House, was passed by the Upper House of the Australian Parliament by 38 votes to 33. The Northern Territory Act was overturned. The federal parliament could not have stepped in if one of the six more independent States had passed a law to legalise voluntary euthanasia. However, the three Territories have fewer powers than the States. 

Death with dignity

During the time that the 'Rights of the Terminally Ill Act' was in force, four terminally ill people were able to die with dignity at a time they had chosen. They were all patients of Doctor Philip Nitschke, a Northern Territory doctor who has played an important role in the debate on assisted dying. All four patients had fulfilled the strict conditions specified by the law. Unfortunately, two more people who had obtained all the necessary signatures were not able to use the law. The federal parliament overturned the Act before these people had received medical help to die. A special amendment was proposed to allow these two people to go ahead when they felt ready, even though the law had been overturned. However, the federal parliament denied them this last wish. 

Bob Dent: the world's first legally assisted death

66-year old Bob Dent was the first person to use the Northern Territory law to die with dignity. He died on 22 September 1996 at his home, with his wife at his side. He had suffered from prostate cancer for five years. His doctor, Dr Philip Nitschke, had connected him to a computer-driven syringe. When Bob typed the go-ahead into the computer, he was free from his suffering at last. In his last letter, Bob Dent said: 

"I did want to write this statement in my own hand, but the weakened state of my body makes this impossible. It has been dictated by me and written down by my wife. For months, I have been on a roller-coaster of pain made worse by the unwanted side effects of the drugs. I have no wish for further experimentation by the palliative care people in their efforts to control my pain. If I were to be a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. What right has anyone, because of their own religious faith, to demand that I behave according to the rules until some omniscient doctor decides that I must have had enough and goes ahead and increases my morphine until I die? If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don't use it, but don't deny me the right to use it if and when I want to." 

You can read more about the Northern Territory assisted dying law at the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory's website. 

South Australia took the lead in the campaign for right-to-die legislation in 1995 after a VE Bill was put forward by MP John Quirke. It was debated in parliament but was disallowed by 2/3 of MP's when it reached the committee stage (when the clauses of a new Bill are debated and amended). It was followed in 1996 by another VE Bill put forward by MP Anne Levy. After a state election in 1997, consideration of Anne Levy's proposal was re-instated by the incoming government but referred to the Social Development Committee. It was widely known that four of the six members of the committee were completely opposed to voluntary euthanasia. Sadly, it seems the committee were unable to put their personal views to one side, and consider objectively the evidence before them. They have recommended that the 'Voluntary Euthanasia Bill' should not be returned to Parliament, meaning that it is likely now to be dropped completely. As Mary Gallnor, President of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, commented: 

"Although that committee has the legal right to make any recommendations it may wish, I believe that to want to exclude not only their parliamentary colleagues but also the public, is wrong. This will be a travesty of democracy, an abrogation of duty and a denial of open, democratic process." 

The South Australian VES carries more detailed news of this bill on its website.