21 years ago, then-Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Marshall Perron delivered a speech to NT Parliament in the closing of debate on the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill, which he introduced. The Bill was passed in 1996, and the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act became the first voluntary euthanasia law in the world. The Howard Government overturned the Bill a year later, and revoked the right of the territories to pass such a law again.
What is particularly interesting reading this speech today, is that even with two decades and a wealth of worldwide evidence between then and now, so many of the opponent arguments it highlights are still in play.
Here, we take a look at politicians with religious beliefs that oppose voluntary euthanasia.
As expected, the Christian churches are major opponents of the bill, but members should not think that citizens who regard themselves as Christians all oppose this measure. While 77% of Australians identify with a religion, 81% of Australians also support voluntary euthanasia. Obviously, many who hold religious faith also support this legal reform. Catholic doctors, Catholic nurses and academics have spoken out in support of it. We are a particularly diverse society. We tolerate a whole variety of religious and cultural practices and, if no harm is done to others, so we should. However, we Australians do object to others telling us that we should live by their beliefs and their moral values.
A smokescreen has been created today by some members who profess to have concerns about the adequacy of safeguards and uncertainty about competence in predicting life expectancy when, in fact, they have a fundamental religious objection to the legislation. I have no problem with that. I said in my second-reading speech three months ago that I respect the right of anyone to have strong religious faith. Some members certainly have that, and I respect them for that. However, if they cannot support the principles contained in this bill under any circumstances, then they should say so, as the member for Goyder did a few moments ago.
They should not try to fool Territorians into thinking that they have studied the subject closely to see how adequate safeguards might be adopted to make voluntary euthanasia acceptable when even extraordinary measures would not convince them to change their mind ... If they oppose voluntary euthanasia because it would offend their religious beliefs, they should say so.
It is still true that the church hierarchies oppose voluntary euthanasia legislation. It is also still true, however, that overwhelmingly, individuals of faith do not.
A 2012 Newspoll survey showed that 88% of Anglicans and 77% of Catholics agreed that a doctor should be allowed to meet a request from a hopelessly ill patient for help to die.
The 2013 ABC Vote Compass policy tool found that out of 1.4 million Australians, 75% of them supported the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill. It also provided a breakdown based on religion, and the rate of support among Catholic respondents was 69.8%.
The most recent and well-publicised case of a politician vocally opposing such legislation on religious principles is that of South Australian Labor MP and government whip Tom Kenyon, whose emails to religious groups asking them to pray for the defeat of the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill 2016 were leaked by Adelaide radio station FIVEaa. In an interview with the station, he stated that:
As Christians, our calling is to follow the example of Christ, and at no point did Christ ever kill anyone. Every time he encountered someone who was sick he healed them, he even brought people back from the dead. That’s what we believe. As Christians we can’t support euthanasia.
But as Marshall Perron stated 21 years ago:
I believe people respect the stance taken by those like yourself, Mr Speaker. Those who cannot vote for this bill and whose constituents overwhelmingly want them to do so have a very real political problem. In my view, those members should consider taking the middle ground. They should absent themselves from the Chamber when the division is called and abstain from voting one way or the other. Abstention is a legitimate parliamentary option.
No politician, including Mr Kenyon, should be compelled to support legislation that goes against their own morality. But they also should not vote against the wishes of their constituents, who they are elected to represent. May they instead step aside.
You can read Marshall Perron's full speech here.
The South Australia Death With Dignity Bill 2016 will be debated this week, Wednesday November 16. If you live in South Australia, please contact your MP here and ask them to support the Bill.