21 years ago, then-Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Marshall Perron delivered this 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.
SECOND READING, IN REPLY, CLOSING THE DEBATE
24 May 1995
Mr Speaker, a number of members find themselves in a dilemma over the issue before us. Indeed, I find myself among that group.
Today, I will damage relationships that I value deeply. My dilemma is whether to rest my case, and not further bruise those relationships, or press ahead and try to achieve a needed reform that will diminish misery and suffering for a very small number of unfortunate citizens to whom palliative care is no comfort.
When I announced my intention in February, I said that it would be difficult to keep the debate focused on what I proposed and not on what it was alleged that I proposed. That has proved to be true. The campaign against the Bill has turned dishonest. The campaign by the AMA [Australian Medical Association] and Right to Life groups at least has been dishonest and, whoever told traditional Aboriginals that we would round up the sick people and put them down ought to be ashamed of themselves.
In fact, the 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.
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 3 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. We could amend the bill to restrict voluntary euthanasia to patients who had been assessed by two psychiatrists, two specialists in the disease, two palliative care experts and to require a three-month cooling-off period, the approval of next of kin, three witnesses, self-administration of the drug, that the whole process be videotaped and that it be done with the concurrence of a Supreme Court judge, and they would still not agree to it.
They should at least acknowledge it! Why beat about the bush? If they oppose voluntary euthanasia because it would offend their religious beliefs, they should say so.
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. Indeed, I have taken it myself on one occasion and I believe the member for Nelson said that she has taken it on one occasion as well.
In this debate, there has been criticism about the number of amendments proposed to the legislation. The members for Port Darwin and Greatorex said that, with so many amendments, the community has been misled somehow and we should not proceed with it because it will not be the same bill that was introduced into parliament in February.
I say that they are weeping crocodile tears. Every one of these amendments has stemmed from the community consultation process and most of them from the select committee's own report after three months of moving around the Territory and spending about $120,000 on gathering community opinion. Each of these 50 or so amendments will strengthen the safeguards in the legislation. The only purpose to be served by putting them to the community in a new composite bill will be to increase community support for the legislation. It can only swing some of the people who are undecided into supporting the Bill.
None of the amendments would change the view of a single hard-line opponent, and I acknowledge that. However, let us not have any of this nonsense that, because there is a whole raft of amendments, it is improper to proceed today. That is exactly why we had a three-month delay.
I appeal to those members who oppose the right of choice to reflect for a moment on their presumptive and patronizing attitude. What makes you so much smarter or wiser or of higher intellect or of higher moral integrity than the tens of thousands of Territorians in the community who want the right of personal choice that this proposal will provide to them?
Why don't you listen to the 70-year-olds, 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds - the citizens who have written to you about their daily anxiety over the possibility of a lingering and miserable death?
You all had the letters because they went to the select committee and were distributed to all members. They appealed to you all to understand that the option of voluntary euthanasia would relieve them of a great burden and that they could face each day with the comfort of knowing that they will not experience the suffering that they have witnessed in others. I am sure we all received letters that had an impact on us. Those were moving letters from the elderly who would find comfort in the mere fact that they would have an option. They are in reasonable health today, but they experience anxiety every day over the knowledge that the ageing process cannot be halted. Their great fear is that, when they fall ill and their time comes, they may have a bad death.
The mere fact that the option is available - and hopefully never to be taken - would relieve those elderly people of a great burden in their everyday life. They do not fear death, but they fear the way death will come.
At least two Territorians, who are terminally ill today, have appealed to you to give them some hope of a modicum of dignity and a minimum of pain near the end. How can you look those people in the eye and say: 'No. As long as there is a flicker of life in your decaying body, you must stay with us. You have no choice'? How can you tell them that you know better than the doctors, the nurses and the palliative care experts who have a lifetime of experience with the dying, and that you know better than the judges, the lawyers and the academics who support voluntary euthanasia?
It is not a field of support that is limited to the supposedly uneducated masses which is the impression that I gain from the attitudes of some members. If this Assembly votes to negate the bill, we will be telling the electorate that we prefer subterfuge to transparency.
We will be telling Territorians that they will get no help from us. We will be telling doctors that, if they are to satisfy patient requests, they must engage in the deception of secret euthanasia or, alternatively, they must fail their patients and reject their pleas for help to die.
In these few moments before we vote on the second reading, let us not think of the terminally ill as 'patients', as they are so coldly described in the Bill.
The terminally ill are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, wives and husbands - they are the flesh and blood of their kinfolk. In suffering, like us all, they embrace with tears, fears and sadness. They are not just 'patients'; they are people. Mr Speaker, they are people like you. They are people like me. They are people like all those people in the public gallery. They are people like all those in the corridors and offices of this building. They are people like all of those in the streets. That is what we are talking about - real people. Let us allow each of them a personal choice. The freedoms that Territorians enjoy all their life should not come to an end just because life does.
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.
(Image via theaustralian.com)