Australia continues debate on euthanasia

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 04 March 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:553

The debate on voluntary euthanasia is set to continue in Australia as another private member's bill is introduced next week, in South Australia, to legalise mercy killing. A Labor frontbencher, Mr John Quirke, who watched his father die painfully of cancer, said that his bill would allow “a free choice for the terminally ill and willing medical practitioners.”

The bill comes only a few days after similar legislation was introduced into the Northern Territory's parliament by the chief minister, Mr Marshall Perron (18 February, p 420). The Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill was immediately referred to a five member parliamentary select committee in Darwin, which will take public submissions during the next three months. There are predictions, however, that despite evidence of widespread public support the bill does not have the backing of the majority of the 25 member parliament.

Mr Quirke said that his bill deserved a mature debate. “Every person should be able, when terminally ill, to have the opportunity to end their life when the quality of that life has degenerated to constant pain and suffering,” he said.

The opposition MP said that his bill, like Mr Perron's, would allow euthanasia only when a patient aged at least 18 had been diagnosed as terminally ill by at least two doctors and had been determined to be of sound mind.

The bill will be decided on a conscience vote of MPs in Adelaide, who are also considering a separate bill, introduced by the Liberal party government, that would allow adults to stipulate in advance how much life support they wanted as their illness progressed.

The renewed debate follows a survey last year by Professor Peter Baume, professor of community medicine at the University of New South Wales. This found that one in eight doctors had helped a patient to die.

Dr Baume told the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New South Wales that personal choice was the major ethical concern and that the Australian Medical Association (AMA) was being “unduly conservative” about the issue.

The association's president, Dr Brendan Nelson, told the society that doctors “should never be sanctioned to kill.” He warned that some members of the profession could abuse the power that any legislation might confer on them. And he said that the debate was inflamed by the lack of information about the availability of palliative care and techniques.

“There is no principle, ethic, or legislation that can cover all situations, and the AMA is opposed to the introduction of legislation, as I am, that would sanction doctors to end lives,” he said.—CHRISTOPHER ZINN, Australian correspondent, Guardian

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