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 the opposition of the Australian Medical Association.
… [T]he print media advertisements of the opponents of the legislation summarise the unsatisfactory and dangerous situation which exists today, and which has been exposed during this debate. Academic research, individual testimony and the confession of honest doctors in Australia has revealed that euthanasia is practiced widely in this country. What we do not know is how prevalent it is and what percentage of it is without patient consent.
Obviously, I have some sympathy with doctors who help suffering patients to die. What worries me, and it should worry every politician, is that there are no witnesses. Indeed, there must not be witnesses because the action is illegal. There is no second doctor to confirm the prognosis. There is no requirement for psychiatric counselling or other specialists. There is no cooling-off period. There is no control over the method or substance used. There is no telling the coroner. In fact, it is imperative that the coroner not be informed of the real cause of death. Of particular concern is that the patient's consent is not required.
Each of those grave concerns - and those were the grave concerns, with the exception of the patient consent, that the dishonest advertisements claimed about the Bill - applies to the illegal practice of euthanasia, assisted suicide and mercy killing in Australia today. That was a dishonest campaign. With its head in the sand, the AMA does not want the lid lifted off this Pandora's box. It tells us to leave it to the doctors - 'Don't you worry about that'. A doctor who kills a patient with an overdose is safe from the law if he or she says their intention was to relieve pain. That is what is said, of course, if ever the question is asked.
I find it curious that the AMA says also that the problem with the decriminalisation of voluntary euthanasia is that some doctors cannot be trusted. It is okay, therefore, if untrustworthy doctors practice unregulated, illegal euthanasia - and even the national president of the AMA admits to doing it - but to require patient consent and competency, information on alternatives, a right to withdraw consent, a second medical opinion, the keeping of records and the informing of the coroner, would be, as their advertisement says, 'bad law'.
However, the President of the AMA states that doctors will ignore the current law at their discretion. At the moment, they do not have to worry about the rules because there are no rules. No wonder they want to maintain the status quo.
When asked about the estimated 2% of patients who have difficulty having their symptoms alleviated, the AMA President stated: 'My attitude is that, in those cases, if assisted death is not an unreasonable course in the mind of the doctor, let those individual patients, their families and their doctors make those decisions and let it occur. Technically, it would be illegal but somebody would have to record it and register a complaint. Now if you do your job properly, there is no way the family is going to complain'. He said police would not lay charges if the doctor could prove that he had the family's backing and had sought the proper expert advice.
That sounds to me like the way the Mafia avoids prosecution - get the family to keep their mouths shut.
We have the outgoing President of the AMA, who admits himself to assisting on request two patients to die. He acknowledges that it was illegal. He will not give anyone the details to have the matter pursued. He is only doing what the seven doctors in Melbourne did subsequently, to prove the point that it is happening in Australia today. It is happening without any regulation at all, and they want to keep it exactly that way. They really do not want the lid of this Pandora's box lifted.
The AMA represents only 29% of Australia's doctors. As an organisation it still officially rejects any thought of assisting a patient to die, and many doctors have left or declined to join because of this stance. Its position on voluntary euthanasia has been the subject of a review for the last six months, but the outcome has not been publicly revealed. However, on October 3, AMA National President Dr Michael Gannon tweeted:
It is inevitable that if #Euthanasia laws are passed, they will over time be expanded to include children, mentally ill, vulnerable
Over the last decade, numerous, wide-ranging, official inquiries into these laws across the world have rejected allegations of this, known as the ‘slippery slope’ - most recently, a cross-party Victorian parliamentary inquiry. In its June 2016 report, handed down after 10 months of investigation, they found “rigorous safeguards, monitoring procedures and high levels of compliance” and “no evidence of institutional corrosion or the often cited ‘slippery slope’”.
Just as the AMA described the Northern Territory law as a 'bad law' 21 years ago, the South Australian branch of the AMA this month wrote in a letter to South Australian parliamentarians that the legislation put before them in the Death With Dignity Bill 2016 – which outlines strict eligibility criteria, procedures and oversights – is a 'flawed Bill'.
It is time for the AMA to engage with the facts and meaningfully enter the debate to work with our legislators. This practice should not continue in secret any longer.
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.