It has long been assumed that the majority of Australia’s politicians, in opposing right to die legislation, are out of step with community feeling on the issue. And not only in Australia it seems but also in some parts of the US.

Among the hundreds of ballots conducted in Tuesday’s election day was what is known as Initiative 1000 in Washington State. This Initiative, sponsored by a former Governor of Washington, Booth Gardner, who is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, permits terminally ill, competent, adult Washington residents, who are medically predicted to have six months or less to live, to request and self-administer lethal medication prescribed by a physician. And the measure protects doctors from being prosecuted under a state law forbidding anyone from aiding in a suicide attempt.

The Initiative was supported by a decisive 58.66 percent of Washingtonians, including voters in conservative rural areas, as well as residents of liberal cities like Seattle.

Washington now becomes the second US state to allow individuals to die with dignity. Neighbouring state Oregon has had such a law on its statute books for ten years now. That law was challenged in the US Supreme Court in 2006 but by a 6 to 3 vote the Court upheld the validity of the law

The Oregon law is a model for Australia to follow. It has only be used 341 times since it came into force in 1998 and has not been abused in the way that anti-right to die campaigners forecast it would be. In fact, the success of the Oregon law was a key factor in the strong support given by Washington’s voters to Initiative 1000.

The Oregon/Washington model for physician assisted death for terminally ill people was recently rejected by the Victorian Parliament, despite the fact that a 2007 Newspoll survey showed 80 percent support in Victoria for allowing terminally ill individuals the right to a physician assisted death.

The only way forward for the terminally ill and their families and medical advisers in Australia to get the same rights as the residents of Washington and Oregon is to force politicians to put the issue to a referendum or plebiscite. It seems that is the only way that we can cure the absurd state of affairs in this country where politicians refuse point blank to legislate to reflect the community will, and spend considerable sums of taxpayers’ money trying to silence right to die campaigner Philip Nitschke and his Exit International, the leading support and lobby group in Australia on right to die issues, and in prosecuting family members who assist a loved one to end pain and suffering by dying.

Meanwhile Washington joins not only Oregon but Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Andalusia region in Spain and the Netherlands in allowing for individuals to exercise their human right to die with dignity.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey