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Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS)

In Australia: Years 1995 to 2000

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1995-MAY: Northern Territory:

Their Northern Territory passed a law on 1995-MAY-25 which was assented to on 1995-JUN-16. 1 It permitted active euthanasia, under careful controls, when certain prerequisites are met.

The Northern Territory consists of about 1/6 the land mass of Australia but only has a population of about 168,000 people. The law started as a private member's bill Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill 1995, sponsored by Marshall Perron. It was opposed by the Australian Medical Association and a variety of right-to-life groups. A "conscience vote" was allowed in which members were free to vote independently of party discipline. The original name was preserved. The law is called the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. It went into effect on 1996-JUL-1. Similar bills were introduced in other Australian states.

A survey conducted by Newspoll in 1995-JUL found 81% of Australian adults supported physician assisted suicide. This is an increase over an earlier result of 79% in 1994-JUL. A poll by the Roy Morgan Research Centre in 1995-JUN showed similar results: 78% in favor. This is an increase from 66% in 1986. A separate poll showed that 60% of doctors and 78% of nurses in Victoria favored voluntary euthanasia. An additional poll was taken among 6,500 Christian congregations, representing 19 denominations. They found that 40% agreed with allowing terminally ill persons to receive assistance in committing; 30% were opposed; 30% were uncertain. Among older church attendees, support was higher (reaching 50% among those 60 and older).

1996-OCT: Opposition by an Anglican Archbishop:

Bob Dent, 66, was the first person to take advantage of the new law. He had moved to the Northern Territory as a Church of England (Episcopal, Anglican) missionary. He became disillusioned with politics within the church and left his calling to become a building estimator. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1991, and converted to Buddhism shortly afterwards. He wrote a letter saying: "If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don't use it, but please do not deny the right to me." He said that no religious group should "demand that I behave according to their rules and endure unnecessary intractable pain until some doctor in his omniscience decides that I have had enough and increases the morphine until I die." In the presence of his wife and doctor, he initiated the process that gave him a lethal drug injection.

The Most Reverend Harry Goodhew, Anglican Archbishop of Sidney denounced the case on 1996-OCT-7; he said:

"The moral shape of our nation is under threat with the first legally sanctioned euthanasia death in the Northern Territory, and so is the relationship between doctors and their patients. It has now been shown to us what this means [sic] doctors are no longer those who save lives. Under the Northern Territory law they are also those who kill...We must feel the deep grief of the wife of the one who died, and also understand the human pain which brought about this ending of a man's life. But these facts cannot be allowed to persuade us that this action was right. It is morally wrong. I cannot approve it from any point of view." 2

1997-JAN: Second person helped to commit suicide:

A second terminally ill person obtained physician assistance in dying on 1997-JAN-7. She was Janet Mills, age 52, who suffered from a rare form of skin cancer that causes the skin to disintegrate. The Anglican Dean of Sydney, Boak Jobbins, said the latest death was another day of shame for Australia. He said:

"Quite clearly we are a nation that has come to the end of its resources...We no longer have anything to offer the terminally ill, the aged or the disabled but a quick exit at the end of a needle.

"I feel deeply for the family and friends of the one who died. I understand the pain and suffering of watching someone you love succumb to a terminal illness. But that is the reality of life that Euthanasia seeks to hide from us. We die. We lose the ones we love. We need to find positive and affirming ways of coping with this."

"As tragic as individual circumstances are they cannot be isolated from the wider consequences. Once you start tampering with the historic protection surrounding human life you endanger those whose lives are most vulnerable. You can no longer say unequivocally that all human life is precious. You can no longer protect the vulnerable from the whims, greed and bigotry of others."

"We must sympathize with those who face death or bereavement. But we cannot stop there. We must also look further to those who stand in the shadow of this legislation; whose care and protection is jeopardized by legalized killing."

"I urge the Northern Territory Government to take seriously its alleged concerned for the sick, to repeal the euthanasia legislation and establish proper palliative care for the terminally ill. Until it does so its so-called concern for the dying will be seen for the cynical exercise it truly is." 3

1997-MAR: State law disallowed:

The Australian Senate narrowly voted to disallow the Northern Province's law. The vote was 38 to 33. This passed the prohibition bill into law, since it had already been approved by the lower house. This action is directly opposed to public opinion. In addition to the polling results cited above, a nation-wide poll of nurses showed that 70% were in favor.

Only four people were able to use the Northern Province's law before it was disallowed.

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Activity following dissolution of the law:

Since 1997, other Australian states have tried to change the law, without success. 4

The first machine built to legally kill patients, was developed by Dr. Philip Nitschke in the Northern Territory. It was scheduled to be displayed in the London Museum of Sciences, London, England starting 2000-JUL. It involved a computer that asked the patient three times whether he/she really wanted to die. If the patient agreed each time, then 100 ml of liquid Nembutal was pumped through a fine needle into the patient's arm. She/he fell asleep and died within five minutes. 5

Alex Maxwell was found guilty of helping his terminally ill wife to commit suicide. The judge said that he was motivated by compassion, love and humanity. He was given an 18 month sentence which was then suspended.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The text of the Northern Territory of Australia law is at: http://www.nt.gov.au/
  2. "Archbishop of Sydney speaks out on Euthanasia," Anglican Communion, 1996-OCT-07, at:  http://www.anglicancommunion.org/
  3. "Euthanasia Death - Another Day of Shame for Australia," Anglican Communion, 1997-JAN-09, at: http://www.anglicancommunion.org/
  4. Derek Humphry, "Tread carefully when you help to die," Assisted Suicide, 2005-MAR-01, at: http://www.assistedsuicide.org/
  5. "London museum exhibits euthanasia machine," EWTN News at: http://www.ewtn.com/

Site navigation: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Assisted Suicide > here

or: Home page > "Hot" topics  > Suicide menu > Assisted Suicide > here

Copyright © 1997 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-SEP-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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