It seems it doesn’t matter how conservative a bill on voluntary euthanasia is, or how many safeguards are put in place. There will always be more politicians without the necessary courage than with; more who would rather see the status quo in the area of end-of-life choices maintained.

This is what happened last week in Tasmania. Despite Premier Lara Giddings’ best intentions, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill, which would have legalised euthanasia in some circumstances in Tasmania, was defeated in the state’s lower house by two votes.

The good citizens of the “state most likely” have been dudded again by their representatives. And I say “state most likely” as, for the first time since Darwin in 1995, we had the premier, the leader of a major party, pushing legislative change. But even this wasn’t enough.

To me, the only truly thing remarkable about this 17th attempt to change state laws in Australia is that Tasmania’s Liberal Party MPs voted as a bloc. Not one of them supported the bill, co-sponsored by Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim bill, despite being given a conscience vote to do so.

For an issue that normally crosses party political lines, this was a first and one that bodes poorly for the future. Although it is inevitable that voluntary euthanasia laws will be passed one day, you’d be a fool to put your faith in this happening soon. And many elderly Australians just don’t have the time to wait.

So here we are, Australia back in the Dark Ages. I’m embarrassed that whereas once we led the world on this cutting-edge social issue, today we have to look to other countries to show what responsible legislation can achieve.

As I’ve said countless times in the media, the sky doesn’t fall in from changing the law. It didn’t in Switzerland. There are still no clouds of doom in any of the four US states (Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont) where assisted suicide is now lawful. And life as we know it hasn’t stopped in the Netherlands either, or in Belgium, in those place where the populace is concerned with living every day to the full, and the sick have the assurance of an out when modern medicine has nothing more to offer.

“For those lucky enough to have gotten their drugs into the country, the question that has now emerged is why bother changing the law at all?”

So where to for Australians?

In recent weeks there’s been more disappointment on this issue with the closure of the Silk Road; yes, that illegal, anonymous internet marketplace where illicit drugs have been available. Despite the bollocking that Silk Road has received in some media, as a resource it was invaluable; its products could be purchased from a peer-reviewed source, not from some dealer on the street corner whose quality assurance guarantees make a mockery of Australian consumer law. In this respect, euthanasia drug Nembutal is the same as all other illegal drugs. If your Nembutal has been cut with baby powder, you’d want to know about it.  After all, you’re only going to die once, and you don’t want to botch it. This, surely, is harm minimisation at its best?

And this was what elderly folk of the Western world are cottoning onto. They break the law, get the drugs themselves, test them, lock them away and pray to Buddha, God or Allah that they’ll never need to use them. But they feel they can rest assured that they have their insurance plan in place if things in the future “turn bad”.

With no law reform on the immediate horizon, this is what some of the elderly and the seriously ill will continue to do — those who come in growing numbers to my workshops are increasingly jaded by a political process incapable of reflecting the 80% community support for voluntary euthanasia. They are finding that solutions are available. Not only are powdered Nembutal from China or liquid Nembutal from South America available, but access is becoming easier, despite an increase in Customs’ interceptions.

Exit International has a laboratory program that enables the testing of these imported drugs. In the 50-plus chemical assays conducted to date, only one has revealed sub-standard purity results. And that was from a sample of dubious origin to start with.

For those lucky enough to have gotten their drugs into the country, the question that has now emerged is why bother changing the law at all? The horse has bolted, leaving the stable door swinging. The oldies are doing it for themselves.

Best of all, they say, they didn’t have to go grovelling to a bunch of medicos seeking permission.

In 1996 in Darwin, the first man in the world to get a legal, lethal, voluntary injection using the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was Bob Dent. While Bob always said he was in the “right place at the right time” he had nothing but disdain for the mandatory psychiatric sanity test, just so he could die. It would have been a joke had the stakes had not been so high.

When you think that the Tasmanian politicians couldn’t even come at multiple doctors, psychiatric testing, cooling-off periods and age and residential restrictions, I can’t help but think why bother. It could be said the future has moved beyond law reform.

* Dr Philip Nitschke is director of Exit International. His autobiography Damned If I Do (with Peter Corris) was published in September by Melbourne University Press

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