Euthanasia bill divides Australian doctors and MPs

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 18 February 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:420

Controversial plans to legalise voluntary euthanasia in the Northern Territory of Australia have provoked a national debate on the rights of terminally ill patients. A private member's bill, due to be introduced on 21 February, has divided doctors and politicians.

The Australian Medical Association, both in the outback territory and nationally, is opposed to the legislation, which has been described as the most sweeping of its kind in the Western world. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons said that it had no official position on the subject and it was up to individual fellows to support the legislation or not.

But the smaller Doctors' Reform Society welcomed the bill, saying that the law should be changed. Dr Robert Marr, a spokesman for the society, said, “It's time politicians stopped running away from the concept of death and allowed dying people the right to choose whether to request medical assistance to end their lives.”

The bill, called the Rights of the Terminally Ill, will be subject to a conscience vote. It is being introduced by the Northern Territory's chief minister, Mr Marshall Perron, whose mother died slowly and painfully two years ago. The bill is expected to be passed into law.

Mr Perron said that the law would allow only a “restricted regime of voluntary euthanasia” which would be available only to a small number of terminally ill people. “I am not proposing euthanasia carte blanche, and there will be no avalanche of people seeking to act under the legislation,” he said.

To be eligible patients must be competent and aged 18 or over, and two doctors must say that death is likely within 12 months. Patients must be experiencing “severe suffering, pain, or distress” for which no medical treatment is “reasonably available or acceptable.” Medication to shorten life can be self administered or carried out with medical assistance but only by doctors registered in the Northern Territory.

Margaret Thighe, chairwoman of the pressure group Right to Life, warned that the Northern Territory would become a “mecca for patient-killing.”

Dr Brendan Nelson, the federal president of the Australian Medical Association, who has admitted in the past to assisting two patients who asked to die, said that euthanasia should not be legalised as it could lead to its unethical use. “We can't reach for a legislative pen every time we have a problem or we see something in life we'd like to regulate. In the end doctors will continue to do what they believe to be right in the interests of the patient and his or her immediate family,” he said.

The federal health minister, Dr Carmen Lawrence, has stopped short of backing the specific proposal. “I don't think we have had enough debate for anyone to reach that conclusion yet,” she said. “I would rather see all the states move in tandem after solid community debate.”—CHRISTOPHER ZINN, Australian correspondent, Guardian

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