Assisting or aiding another to commit suicide is classified as euthanasia. This topic is an extremely controversial issue, which has caused much legal, social and political debate between opposing stakeholders. Many professional medical practitioners and chief religious groups have been in great conflict with each other regarding this debatable issue. No state or territory in Australia has presently adopted laws permitting euthanasia. The Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1996, made euthanasia available to the terminally ill patients of that state, however this act was blocked in 1997.
There are many issues revolving around this controversial topic but with the right laws and appropriate guidelines euthanasia could become available to those terminally ill patients who so desperately request it.
This report will take the view that Euthanasia should be legalised in Queensland under very strict conditions.
Euthanasia is a highly emotive topic that deals with unsettling issues, which people often choose to disregard. The dispute revolving around this topic has resulted in the development of many general and emotive issues, which have caused both societal and political debate.
Many believe that the intentional killing of another person is wrong, despite their unfortunate status of being terminally ill, having endured years of suffering and pain and having completely lost their dignity and pride. Advocates of euthanasia generally insist that this procedure should require informed consent and should only be used in cases of terminal illness that causes unbearable suffering. However, their opposition view voluntary euthanasia as the beginning of compulsory euthanasia or a licence to kill for physicians.
Various religious groups, primarily Christians, object to the impassive idea of legalising euthanasia, as they believe life belongs to God. However, 76% of Australians claim that they want the freedom of choice to manage their own deaths and for this reason Bills, regarding euthanasia, have been introduced in the parliaments of various states within Australia. The everlasting legal and social dispute of introducing euthanasia to Australian states has been accompanied by a number of events, which have become landmarks for both the pro euthanasia movement and their opposing parties.
3.0 Euthanasia (general outline)
Euthanasia comes from two Greek words meaning ‘pleasant death’. It is also commonly referred to as mercy killing and includes accelerating a person’s death for some idea of goodness (www.euthanasia.com). This topic includes three different practices, actively causing death, aiding suicide and not interfering with suicide (http://www.fact-index.com). Euthanasia is often divided into two categories, active and passive. Active means taking action that leads to death, such as vigorously causing death, accelerating death or assisting suicide. Passive, however, means not interfering with knowledgeable suicide for example allowing a patient to have the right to die, free of life-extending technology. (Giles, 1989, p.125) Most disagreement between resisting stakeholders involves active euthanasia and the anti-euthanasia belief that when one is experiencing prolonged pain they should reach out and seek the support of a close friend or relative. (Giles.1989, p.130) Those throughout the world who support euthanasia would like people to avoid pointless suffering and give them the right to control their own death. However, Father Anthony Fisher, a Dominican friar and bioethics expert, explains that supporters of pro life believe voluntary euthanasia is ‘not a way of putting granny out of her misery but putting her out of our misery’ (http://www.ad2000.com.au).
Like most countries in the world, euthanasia is not yet legalised in any states in Australia. However, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia have introduced a number of Bills regarding the controversial topic. The Queensland Criminal Code established in 1899 bans euthanasia in this state. Sections 284, 296 and 311 clearly outline that any act, which aids suicide or leads to the acceleration of death is illegal in Queensland and makes the assistant a criminal. If one is found guilty of this crime they could be liable to imprisonment for life. (Criminal Code Act 1988)
Section 284 of the Criminal Code, Consent to death immaterial, explains that even if an individual has give someone consent to hurry or aid their death, the person who acts is criminally responsible (see Appendix 1) (Criminal Code Act 1988). Section 296, Acceleration of death, outlines the serious responsibly one is left with after accelerating another’s death (see Appendix 1) (Criminal Code). Finally Section 311, clarifies that any person who procures, counsels or aids another in killing themselves is guilty of a crime, and is liable to imprisonment for life (see Appendix 1) (Criminal Code).
In 1997 the Australian Commonwealth Government stopped the ACT, Northern Territory and Norfolk Island from making laws that permit or have the effect of permitting voluntary euthanasia (http://www.euthanasia.cc/didmsnj5(1)4.html). Introducing the Euthanasia Laws Act stopped these states from making their own laws regarding euthanasia (see Appendix 2). This act was introduced to banish the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, which was launched in the Northern Territory in 1996. (www.austlii.edu.au) This act allowed the terminally ill to seek voluntary euthanasia by stating, A patient who, in the course of a terminal illness, is experiencing pain, suffering and/or distress to an extent unacceptable to the patient, may request the patient’s medical practitioner to assist the patient to terminate the patient’s life (Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1996). The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act of the Northern Territory also outlined the strict guidelines of categorising a patient (see Appendix 3). This act was withdrawn a year after it was introduced in the Northern Territory and records show it was only useful for three terminally ill citizens.
Over the years both pro euthanasia and pro-life supporters have compiled a number of different surveys to gain support, calculate statistics and try to come to some resolution about the controversial issues revolving around euthanasia. Doctor Phillip Nitchske, an activist in the Voluntary Euthanasia movement, believes that ‘this new radicalism that is belonging within the voluntary euthanasia movement is a direct consequence of the political suppression of the social movement’ (http://onlineopinion.com.au). For the past thirty years Australian polls have revealed that nearly 80% of Australians want legislation that allows the provision of help to assist a terminally ill person to die. The denial of this large majority’s opinion suggests that most politicians, the major political parties and the organised religious groups are in fear of the inevitable and sit on the fence with their eyes closed (http://onlineopinion.com.au).
Many people believe legalising euthanasia will only make what is already going on in hospitals legal. This is shown in a survey conducted in 1988 by the Centre of Human Bioethics at Monash University, which found that 30% of doctors surveyed had previously broken the law by helping terminally ill patients end their life (Giles, 1989, p.125). By analysing this it can be seen that doctors are already playing God and secretly assisting and accelerating the death of terminally ill patients, suffering excruciating pain (McLean, Britton, 1997, 4) Because of this, the relevant authorities should take more of an insight on the situation today and consider legalising voluntary euthanasia under strict conditions in Queensland.
6.0 A Turning Point for Pro Euthanasia:
The story of Nancy Crick was a major landmark and a great leap forward for the pro euthanasia movement. Crick was a sixty-nine year old woman, who took her life on Wednesday 22nd May 2002, to escape the pain of bowel cancer. Nancy was surrounded by twenty-one of her closest friends and family when she took a lethal dose of barbiturates with a draught of Bailey’s, which put her to sleep (http://smh.com.au). The twenty-one spectators who witnessed Nancy’s death were automatically questioned to determine whether they had made any contribution or were an assistant in any way to her suicidal passing. These witnesses were not notified, until two years after the event, that they were not being charged with assisting suicide (www.exitAustralia.net). This is because it is entirely uncertain whether witnesses of suicide, simply being present and making no contribution at all, are breaking the law (http://www.vesv.org.au). This case caused great social, political and medical dispute as many people had strong opinions both for and against the situation. However, after the autopsy confirmed that Nancy had not sign of cancer, but evidence of an inoperable twisted bowel at the time of her death, the public opinion, which had been solidly behind her, became confused and there was perception of a bad mistake (www.vesv.org.au).
Robert Syme 2002 suggested that people felt Nancy had been mislead and manipulated, that she was not terminally ill, and that she should not have taken her life or been encouraged to do so (http://www.vesv.org.au). Syme also reported that all this controversy was misinformed and showed a lack of understanding of all the facts. He made clear that Crick’s views, opinions and emotions were available for the public to access via the Internet (www.vesv.org.au). Nancy’s diary entries were put onto the Internet and the public had the opportunity to write and ask questions about her condition. In her last diary entry (refer to Appendix 4) Nancy said ‘despite the best surgery and palliative care, my life has deteriorated to such an extent that I feel that death
would be a blessed relief. But I could not legally get help to do this and the Premier, Mr Beattie says the law will not change’ (http://www.exitaustralia.net).
Nancy sought advice from pro euthanasia supporter Phillip Nitchski when she was unable to obtain any relief of her symptoms that were deteriorating her body, life and dignity. Although Nitchski was not present when Nancy passed away, many blamed him for manipulating and persuading Crick to put an end to her misery by putting an end to her life (www.vesv.org.au). Nancy Crick was terminally ill at the time of her death. Her symptoms included immense weight loss, constant and agonising pain, constant vomiting and major operations. Palliative care was of no benefit and eventually she refused all treatment (www.smh.com.au). For these reasons, Nancy decided her life had come to an end and believed it was her time to go. Her inspiring story was a major turning point for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Queensland, and has gained pro euthanasia support from many people. Many people today suffer similar symptoms to Nancy’s and would benefit from the legalisation of euthanasia being introduced into Queensland. If the community accepts this law, it may be a turning point for other pro euthanasia campaigns in Australia’s states and territories.
7.0 Political Movements:
Very few nations around the world have adopted legislation permitting voluntary euthanasia. On April 1, 2002 a bill, allowing terminally ill patients to request assistance regarding suicide, was passed in the Netherlands Upper House. (www.fact-index.com).
The Dutch, Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act, outlines the strict conditions in which euthanasia may occur and the qualified physicians who are eligible to assist in the process (www.fact-index.com). According to this legislation, euthanasia and assisting with suicide is still a criminal offence however, professional doctors, who have been repeatedly asked to assist a terminally ill patient and have seeked further advice from other general practitioners, will not be prosecuted.
Euthanasia was legalised in Australia’s Northern Territory, by the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in 1996. However, this law was soon ineffective due to the amendment by the Commonwealth government to the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978 (http://www.austlii.edu.au). This act explained that the Australian Constitution does not guarantee the powers of the Northern Territory legislature, unlike those of the State legislatures (www.fact-index.com). The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1996 clearly outlines, in section 7, the conditions the medical practitioner has to abide by before assisting with a patients death (see Appendix 5) (www.austlii.edu.au). Section 7 basically outlines that the patient must have attained the age of eighteen, the opinion of the medical practitioner is satisfied on reasonable grounds and that the medical practitioner has seeked advice from another medical doctor who holds prescribed qualifications. The medical practitioners must be satisfied that the patient is suffering from an illness that will eventually result in death, no possible medical measures can be taken in the hope of effecting a cure and that the only treatment available to the patient is confined to pain relief (www.austlii.edu.au) (refer to Appendix 5).
The Northern Territories, Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1996, should be considered during the process of legalising euthanasia in Queensland. Adopting a law very similar to the Northern Territories blocked legislation would be a huge benefit to our society. This would give doctors and medical practitioners the ability to assist terminally ill patients under very strict conditions. These conditions should be the same as those outlined in the Northern Territory’s act however, more emphasis must be added to the condition of the patient’s clear consent, through verbal communication or a living will (www.fact-index.com).
8.0 Social and Legal Issues Related to Euthanasia
Euthanasia is an extremely controversial issue, which is the reasoning behind the many social, political and legal disputes between opposing stakeholders. These arguments have been existent for many years, however due to the worlds enhancing technology these issues have developed into sensitive and ethical opinions. The two distinct campaigns opposing each other in this controversial topic are pro-euthanasia (pro-choice) and pro-life. Both campaigns have diverse moral views and opinions of the issue and aim to publicise these beliefs in the hope of further public support.
8.1 Professional Opinions
Dr Phillip Nitschke is a well-known euthanasia practitioner and campaigner. He believes that doctors are already playing God in hospitals and by legalising voluntary euthanasia the government is only making an issue, which is already occurring legal (www.abc.net.au). During the euthanasia debate in Sydney between Bishop Fisher and Dr Phillip Nitschke, Nitschke opened his case by stating ‘one can provide palliative care by, for example, increasing the drug dosage at the request of the patient to the point where it brings death’ (www.ad2000.com.au). By putting forth such a crucial issue for pro-choice, Nitschke has outlined that this situation is euthanasia and it has been occurring for many years. In response to Nitschke’s opinion Father Fisher claimed that breaking a law does not give total reason to remove it (www.ad2000.com.au). Fisher also argued that life is a gift from God and by assisting another to die you are offending and disrespecting him. In disagreement to this Nitschke questioned, ‘what sort of gift is it if God gives us a life we can’t escape from?’ (www.as2000.com.au).
Fr Fisher remarked that the agenda of Dr Nitschke and his supporters went far beyond the killing of those in extreme pain. He explained that today pro-euthanasia supporters advocate killing defective infants, the unconscious and the non-competent elderly. (www.ad2000.com.au). In reply to this Dr Nitschke argued that the killing of the unconscious and the non-competent elderly are decided through the family or a living will. The legalisation of voluntary euthanasia must clearly outline conditions, which the medical practitioner must follow in aid of categorising whether euthanasia is the best option. Also this legislation must explain that the patient is required to give clear and identifiable consent to euthanasia, through either verbal communication or a living will (www.abc.net.au). Nitschke believes that terminally ill patients have two options, to acquire to drugs that will provide them with a peaceful death and take them while they still can, or risk becoming trapped in their body enduring a slow and inevitable death. He explains that the only other possibility involves asking a loved one or doctor to break current law and help them to administer a lethal dose, however, the assistant risks a twenty-year imprisonment sentence (www.onlineopinion.com.au).
Nitschke’s dominant argument is that across Australia suicide is a legal act, but advising, counselling or assisting suicide attracts a life imprisonment penalty. Nitschke questions ‘how can it be that to advise someone on an action that is legal, can be considered so illegal as to attract a penalty of twenty years in prison?’ (www.onlineopinon.com.au). Nitschke views the Australian laws as unjust and states that unjust laws are meant to be broken, which is the reasoning behind the continuous help he gives to the terminally ill (www.as2000.com.au).
8.2 Social Opinions
Many past or present patients have advertised their stories in the aim of supporting either the pro-euthanasia or pro-life movements. Nancy Crick is an ideal example of a terminally ill patient, who’s life could have been made a lot easier if she was allowed to seek medical aid with her request to die. Rosemary Dewick is another high-profile campaigner for voluntary euthanasia. The irony of her close brush with death through a massive brain haemorrhage allowed Dewick to realise the need of euthanasia from a terminally ill perspective (My Right to Die).
Pro-euthanasia supporter, Dr Gerrit Kimsma, believes that the legalisation of euthanasia will allow the terminally ill to focus on things they really want to do, which lightens the pressure off the patient as they realise and Their suffering will soon come to an end (http://www2.gol.com). Dr Peter Ravenscroft opposes the legalisation of euthanasia. He believes that if a patient is diagnosed with an incurable disease, they should be given palliative care. Ravenscroft agrees, along with a large majority of society, that if euthanasia became legal, it may be easier to choose death over continuing research for better treatment (http://www2.gol.com).
It is debatable that legislation of euthanasia should include strict conditions, which determines whether the patient should be allowed to request termination of life. These guidelines will make euthanasia available to the terminally ill but restrict it from those who are not, for example the handicapped, the disabled and the defective (Mike Hume, Times, p.16) Pro-life encourages that there is no good reason to end a life. They support the idea that many good and unfortunate events occur throughout life, but that’s what its all about. Pro-euthanasia
Euthanasia should be legalised to the terminally ill citizens of Queensland and under strict conditions this can be made possible. These conditions must be made entirely clear in the legislation and greater emphasis should be put on the patient’s absolute consent.
Legislation should include these five main conditions:
* Only registered medical practitioner may carry out active voluntary euthanasia
* The patient must explicitly request active euthanasia is such a way that there can be no doubt concerning his or her desire to die
* The patient’s decision must be well-informed, voluntary and enduring
* There must be no available way of improving the patient’s condition which is acceptable to the patient
* The medical practitioner must consult at least two other medical practitioners (who also have to confirm the above points)
(Giles, 1989, p. 125)
If these five conditions are clearly identified, doctors will not be given total control of the situation. This reduces the chance of voluntary euthanasia evolving into compulsory euthanasia.
If order of legalising this procedure sections 284, 296 and 311 need to be completely left out of the Criminal Code and the conditions outlined in the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1996(see Appendix 5) need to be considered. Once these amendments are made many terminally ill patients will feel they have control over their lives and will be able to endure a peaceful and lawful death at their own choice. (McLean, Britton, 1997, p. 39) This will reduce the number of unhappy patients and families, as they will not be required to endure or watch a loved one endure such worthless and agonising pain.