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Who will first have the right to die? The fraught euthanasia landscape

The case of South Australian mother Joanne Dunn, who has asked doctors to stop feeding her comatose son Mark in order to let him die, has rekindled interest in euthanasia — and law reform could be closer than you think.

Mark Leigep, who is 37, has been in a vegetative state since March 2006 after sustaining head injuries in a car crash. Current laws prohibit voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide in all states and territories, so the only legal option left for Dunn is to effectively starve her son to death.

In the UK, high-profile “locked-in syndrome” sufferer Tony Nicklinson died recently from pneumonia, just six days after losing his battle with the High Court for the legal right to end his life.

Crikey has examined the legal landscape on euthanasia (which is essentially a state issue) and found Tasmania may be the closest to legalising the practice, where a “mobile medically assisted suicide clinic” for the terminally ill could be running by this time next year.

Philip Nitschke, director of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International, plans to launch a Tasmanian home-visit clinic program that would allow doctors to travel to patients’ homes and lawfully prescribe and administer the lethal drug Nembutal. The service would be modelled upon a Dutch version, which has been operating out of a van since March.

Nitschke’s plans would capitalise on proposed changes to euthanasia law in Tasmania. Three months ago, Greens leader Nick McKim declared he would introduce a private member’s bill, co-sponsored by Labor Premier Lara Giddings. The bill has not yet been released. McKim told The Examiner a discussion paper outlining the merits of voluntary euthanasia would be released in the coming weeks.

Rather than seeking a discussion on whether or not we should introduce voluntary euthanasia, it will be encouraging discussion around how it should be done,” McKim said. ”We will then draft and table legislation that is appropriate for Tasmania, which gives it the best chance of passing the Parliament.”

Giddings told the ABC the aim is to “try to get legislation to the Parliament by the end of the year”, but that “as we progress through we’ll know whether or not we can actually meet that timetable”. She added that “it is possible to carefully and sensitively improve end-of-life decision-making through a safe and regulated legal and medical framework”.

Neil Francis, president of Dying with Dignity, confirms the Tasmanian discussion paper will soon be released. ”The law prohibiting euthanasia is seriously out of step with the will of the people. Three out of four Catholics, four out of five Anglicans and nine out of 10 non-faith Australians believe that euthanasia should be legalised,” Francis told Crikey.

Other states are considering euthanasia laws too. In South Australia, Labor MP Stephanie Key’s Consent to Medical Treatment and Palliative Care (End of Life Arrangements) Amendment Bill 2010 has been tabled. The bill would enable South Australian GPs who administer drugs to end a patient’s life to obtain a legal defence to the charges of murder, manslaughter or assisting suicide. Key says the bill will amend the state’s Criminal Law Consolidation Act, but the changes will not lead to the decriminalisation of euthanasia.

What it is saying is that in certain circumstances, if someone is at the end of the road and the palliative care measures have not effectively reduced the person’s suffering to an acceptable level, then the doctor can accede to [the patient’s] requests,” Key said.

A new motion is planned in the Victorian upper house to consult publicly on “end-of-life decision making”. The public’s response may then inform the drafting of a revised euthanasia bill. In NSW, Greens MP Cate Faehrmann plans to introduce a bill to the Legislative Council in November to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

At the federal level, former Greens leader Bob Brown put forward the “Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia Legislation) Bill 2010”, which aimed to reinstate the rights of the territories to legislate their own voluntary euthanasia laws. It’s been before the Senate since 2010. (The NT briefly legalised euthanasia, but those laws were overruled by the Howard government.)

In his second reading speech to parliament in 2010, Brown outlined the bill’s objectives:

The first is to recognise the rights of the legislative assemblies of the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island to make laws for the peace, order and good government of their territories, including the right to legislate for voluntary euthanasia. Secondly, and more directly, the bill repeals the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, the Andrews Act, which removed the right of the territories to legislate on voluntary euthanasia.”

A spokesperson for Greens leader Christine Milne told Crikey the bill was “not scheduled for debate at this stage” and was likely to fail because it had not secured political support.

Meanwhile, in the South Australian suburb of Fullarton, Mark Leigep lies unresponsive as his future is decided.

6
  • 1
    Posted Tuesday, 28 August 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    An excellent article Sarah; informative and thoughtful. Tank you.

    With the stats being as high as three out of four Catholics, four out of five Anglicans, and nine out of ten non-religiously aligned, it surprises me that the MSM reporting of this subject results in letters of outrage predominantly against euthanasia.

    I don’t feel optimistic about Victoria doing anything, mainly because Peter Ryan, State leader of the National Country Party and deputy Premier, wields enormous clout over the state Coalition government and its pathetic leader, Mr Ted Baillieu.

  • 2
    CML
    Posted Tuesday, 28 August 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    With numbers like you have quoted, Sarah, why do we put up with our elected representatives ignoring the will of the people? Surely they do not have the right to do that.

  • 3
    Damian Lloveda
    Posted Tuesday, 28 August 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    My Grandfather was given this same fate. Although he was 79 with lung cancer i watched him emaciate in palliative care slowly but surely. I want to spare the details but this is the first time i have ever written or even thought about his state. Moaning and groaning, i do not wish it upon anyone. I believe that most may have experienced this in their lives but push it to the back of their conciousness. As if others know best. Yet i remind myself that the only constant is change and that the powers that be aren’t in the business of changing things but rather the society must ask/demand/fight for such justice.

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Tuesday, 28 August 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Never underestimate the greed & coercive power of (prospective) heirs. It was only a generation ago that suicide was illegal, anyone surviving being incarcerated in asylums.

  • 5
    Posted Wednesday, 29 August 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    AR: True, but that in no way validates the prolonging of life, frequently in agony, and in a vegetative state, of those people who wish to have access to euthanasia.

  • 6
    S Andrew
    Posted Tuesday, 4 September 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    @CML because we have freaks like the ACL making a louder noise.

    With an ageing population, it is inevitable that euthanasia will be legalised. I for one cannot wait to sign up, given my family medical history.

    Reading the comments above and drawing on personal experience, we have a moral obligation to let terminally ill people die with grace and dignity in tact.

    Another great article, Sarah. Well done.

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