Public support is growing in Australia for a bill intended to legalise assisted suicide in the south-eastern state of Victoria, with a majority of members of the state’s parliament saying they planned to vote in favour of the controversial proposal.
Most analysts now expect the bill to pass comfortably, which would allow Victoria to join a small but growing number of countries and territories where euthanasia, or assisted suicide, is legal. Opinion polls consistently show 70% to 80% support for euthanasia in Australia.
The Victorian bill, which will be introduced in the second half of 2017, would allow doctors to assist terminally ill people to die. The details are not yet clear, but Premier Daniel Andrews, the state’s head of government, said in a video statement that the bill would include “personal and ethical safeguards,” and be guided by experts in the law, health care, patient rights and palliative care.
The parliament of Australia’s Northern Territory passed assisted suicide legislation in 1995, but the law was over-ridden in 1997 by Australia’s federal parliament, which has a supervisory role in relation to the territory. More than 20 bills have since been proposed in Australian state parliaments, but all have been rejected.
Most experts believe, however, that the Victorian bill has a good chance of becoming law. The bill is not subject to repeal or revision by the federal parliament, which does not have jurisdiction over Australia’s six states in this area.
Philip Nitschke, an Australian doctor who was instrumental in implementing the Northern Territory legislation, assisted some residents to die before the federal intervention, but burned his Australian medical license in 2015 after an investigation by local medical regulators. He moved to the Netherlands, where he is the director of Exit International, a euthanasia organization.
Nitschke, who has continued to campaign for euthanasia rights, said Australia had “led the world” with its Northern Territory law but was now “something of an embarrassment” internationally. “The NT law, it lasted eight months, then we chucked it out, and here we are having to bring it back again,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
He said the Victorian bill was likely to limit assisted suicide to the terminally ill. “You will have to be damn near dead, and then you will have to go to a panel of doctors and beg for the right, from the doctors, to die,” he said.
“The difficulty will be with those patients who will not qualify (under the Victorian bill),” he said. “They are insisting on this somewhat difficult restriction that a person must be terminally ill. A lot of people going through hell aren’t technically terminally ill” – a term usually defined as a patient with less than six months to live.
In the Netherlands, Nitschke said, the euthanasia debate has matured over many years, and there is now a push for the elderly to be able to demand the lethal tablets when they want them, without having to get permission from a doctor.
Nevertheless, he said, the Victorian bill was a step forward, and other Australian states and territories were likely to follow suit once Victoria had tested the waters and found them politically safe.
A separate bill is expected to be put to the state parliament in New South Wales – possibly within this year; but it does not have the backing of Mike Baird, the state’s premier. In South Australia, parliamentarians rejected an assisted-death bill last November, even though it was supported by Premier Jay Weatherill.
Andrews said his views on doctor-assisted suicide had changed in 2016 following his father’s painful death from cancer. He said that “hundreds” of desperately ill Victorians commit suicide each year, on their own, because medical assistance is legally denied to them.
The premier has also made it clear that assisted dying would be available only to Victorian residents to prevent a surge of so-called “death tourism” by Australians from other states and citizens of other nations.
Although the text of the assisted dying bill has not yet been published, Andrews said it would be consistent with a framework presented in an earlier cross-party parliamentary committee’s report titled “Inquiry into End of Life Choices.”
The report recommended that patients seeking assisted death would have to be adults with “decision-making capacity, suffering from a serious and incurable condition, who are at the end of life.” Two doctors would have to agree to the request.
The committee also recommended rules that would permit doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to such patients, which could be taken without further assistance. Doctors would be allowed to assist patients who were physically unable to take medication alone.
Paul Russell, executive director of the anti-euthanasia lobby group Hope, said that although he was a religious man, he had been campaigning against the introduction of assisted suicide or euthanasia in Victoria on secular grounds.
He said that in places where euthanasia or assisted suicide are legal, a relative or other person close to an extremely ill patient could coerce the patient to request death — for monetary or other reasons.
“Society shouldn’t permit it,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review. “The trouble with euthanasia or assisted suicide is you’re actually bringing in a third party, or a number of third parties, into the equation, and that’s where you start to get difficulties emerging.”
Russell said strong public support for assisted dying would “melt away” if respondents were questioned further. “It’s generally a single question, and the only thing those polls can tell us is that 70% to 80% of Australians are genuinely concerned about people suffering at the end of their lives. There’s nothing more about what it actually entails, the risks etcetera, and the practices from other jurisdictions.”
He questioned reports suggesting that the planned assisted dying bill has the support of a solid majority of Victoria’s members of parliament, but said he did not doubt the sincerity of its advocates. “I don’t believe either side has a mortgage on compassion,” he noted. “We are all motivated by compassion”.