With the Greens preparing a bill that would repeal a ban on the Northern Territory legislating to allow euthanasia, the positive effects of having a minority government control the lower house of the 43rd Parliament have become apparent. Bob Brown aims to allow the Northern Territory to re-enact the voluntary euthanasia laws that it passed in 1995 (The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT)) and were overruled by Federal Parliament two years later. Despite this, the Northern Territory Chief Minister and Dr Phillip Nitschke have each made comments suggesting that they believe the Territory will not reintroduce euthanasia legislation in the near future. The government of Tasmania and a government MP in Victoria have each expressed an interest in examining the issue. Most Australian states have rejected euthanasia legislation, including South Australia which has stubbornly rejected it five times since 2000.
The debate surrounding euthanasia is difficult to conduct. It is one that is heavily influenced by demagoguery, religion and personal experience. The vast majority of countries do not allow euthanasia of any sort; the practice is legal in parts of Europe, some States in the US and Japan. It is no longer legal in any part of Australia. Despite this, it is widely practised by doctors in a tempered form through the excessive use of painkillers on terminally ill patients to shorten their lives.
Those who support euthanasia cite the widespread unofficial use of painkillers to induce a faster and less painful death in dying patients, saying that such practices should be regulated and reviewed. Others claim that this would only legitimise a technique that should not be permitted. Some 80 – 85% of Australians support voluntary euthanasia, for it is surely just to allow somebody in terrible pain, with no discernible quality of life, to choose to die. The “slippery slope” argument, which claims that allowing voluntary euthanasia would soon lead to allowing involuntary euthanasia, is frequently employed by anti-euthanasia groups. Christopher Pyne justified his stance on euthanasia in the same way on the ABC’s Q and A on the 20th of September:
“…in the communities where they had introduced euthanasia, like Holland, there were many examples, and 1200 at the last count, of people who were involuntarily euthanised. So once you open the door to voluntary euthanasia you can’t be certain where the boundaries will actually end.”
This strange statistic seems to have come from the vile Australian Christian Lobby. It is indeed true that the Netherlands is more or less the only jurisdiction to allow non-voluntary euthanasia, and even then it is of an indeterminate legal status. The Netherlands tolerates the euthanasia of children where parents, doctors and social workers have approved it. In the past seven years, twenty-two cases of euthanasia performed on children were reported – a far cry from the 1200 Pyne discussed. In each of these cases, the suffering of the subject was incredibly high and could not be alleviated. In most cases, the victim would have had no ability to communicate whatsoever and would have been entirely dependent on a hospital’s facilities to keep them alive. It is these cases, and similar cases in adults, where not allowing euthanasia is nothing short of cruel. Counter-arguments cite the inherent value of life and the effects of euthanasia on relatives, but rarely acknowledge that the patient, rather than the legislature, is ethically and practically better placed to consider these factors. Ethicist Leslie Cannold supports euthanasia:
The point is that if you pass a law that says, “My values, which is that I believe certain things about life and you ought not to be taking yours,” that impedes my capacity to follow my values. Where if you pass a law that says everybody has a choice, you can do what you believe is right and I can do what I believe is right.