Australian voluntary euthanasia law is overturned

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 05 April 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:993
  1. Christopher Zinn
  1. Sydney

    Australian doctors on both sides of the ethical divide have joined forces to call for an increase in government funding for palliative care after the world's first voluntary euthanasia law was overturned by parliament last week.

    The Australian Medical Association welcomed the passing of the federal private member's bill that threw out the Northern Territory's historic Rights of the Terminally Ill Act but said that governments should take services for dying people more seriously. The association's president, Dr Keith Wollard, said: “No matter what our views on euthanasia, we must now work together to ensure more is done for the dying patient.”

    The Coalition for Voluntary Euthanasia called the decision a “triumph for doctors over patients” but backed the call for better palliative services, which it said were being denied to thousands of people especially in rural areas. The coalition's national spokesman, Dr Robert Marr, called the decision “a victory for religious intolerance and political arrogance” and said that the senators who supported the bill put their personal biases before the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Australians. He said that the government of Prime Minister John Howard was hypocritical to support the bill while at the same time cutting the budget for palliative care by 10%.


    Dr Philip Nitschke burns copies of the anti-euthanasia bill


    Four people have died under the legislation, which was enacted only last year. The first was 22 year old Bob Dent, who had prostate cancer and died from a self administered lethal injection by pushing the commands on a computer rigged up to a machine that administered three drugs intravenously into his arm (5 October, p 835). Two middle aged patients were in Darwin hoping to use the law when it was overturned. Their doctor, euthanasia pioneer Dr Philip Nitschke, said that more than 60 others had contacted him asking for help to end their lives.

    “The Senate of Australia has betrayed the terminally ill, especially the two people who are dying in the Northern Territory. Once [the law] is signed they move back into the black, murky, shadowy, illegal world,” he said.

    The euthanasia issue has divided Australians since the bill was introduced to the Northern Territory's parliament in Darwin two years ago. Although some polls have shown that 80% of Australians support it, doctors, politicians, and church leaders have been vehement in their opposition.

    Mr Howard, who is against euthanasia, has declined to guarantee continued funding for palliative care programmes, despite the Senate arguing for it in the heated debate. He said after the vote: “I was influenced by the slippery slope view–once you start down the path of legally sanctioning a positive act of terminating somebody's life you have so altered the character of society, and the mores of our society, that you wonder what the next step will be.”

    But Dr Rodney Syme, president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and a Melbourne urologist, who has openly admitted to helping patients to die and threatened authorities to prosecute, said that he would carry on as before, even if he had to go to jail. Dr Syme said: “Somebody needs to champion the cause of the people–somebody who recognises what a travesty this action is in Canberra, that it does not represent the views of the people of Australia.”

    Dr Helga Kruse, the author of a report showing that 30% of deaths in Australia were the result of deliberate “end of life” decisions by doctors–including withholding treatment–said the Senate vote was not the end of the debate. “In the long term, it will be seen as a hiccup. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that euthanasia will be introduced in Australia,” said Dr Kruse.

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