Australia passes first euthanasia law

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: (Published 03 June 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1427

The Northern Territory parliament in Australia has sparked an international debate after passing the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill, effectively making Australia a world test case for legal euthanasia. Although voluntary euthanasia is sanctioned in the Netherlands and Oregon, in the US, the Northern Territory is the first parliament to pass a law making it legal.

The new law means that terminally ill patients can end their lives with medical help as long as strict guidelines are met, including diagnosis by two experienced doctors, one of whom has psychological qualifications. Among amendments passed in a 14 hour debate was one that gave the government the power to specify which drugs will be used to hasten death.

The bill has drawn fire from the Catholic church, the Islamic faith, the Australian Medical Association, right to life organisations, lawyers, and some politicians but won praise from people with AIDS right to die groups, the Doctors Reform Society, and most politicians.

The Australian Medical Association opposed the bill at its national conference, reaffirming its support of the World Medical Association's stance that euthanasia, even if at the patient's request, was unethical. Dr David Weedon, the new president of the association, predicted there would be practical problems with the new law and said that that these would hopefully deter other states from adopting similar legislation.

“There are three psychiatrists only in the Northern Territory and they're in Darwin,” he said. “Are terminally ill patients in Katherine or any of the other centres in the Northern Territory going to hop on a Greyhound bus to go to Darwin to get the certificates they need for euthanasia?”

Vice president Dr Keith Woolard said that, instead of adopting similar laws, the states should improve palliative care. “We believe the euthanasia debate is based largely on fear and ignorance, ignorance of the fact that good palliative care services are available throughout Australia,” he said.

The retiring president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Brendan Nelson, who is moving to a career in federal politics, said that the law was not supported by most doctors. “The solution to this problem is not to give sanctions to the killing of other people but to educate and provide appropriate services to the community,” he said. “Otherwise, we're going to cover the management of dying people with the same sort of bureaucratic nonsense and interference that goes on in day to day life.”

In the Northern Territory there was a mixed reaction from the public. A parliamentary report has found that some Aborigines already dislike visiting medical centres for fear of being “given a needle.” Health minister Mike Reed said that it would be early next year before all regulations and procedures were in place to enable the law to take effect.—CHRISTOPHER ZINN, Australian correspondent, Guardian

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