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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 3484

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (11:37 AM) —Family First opposes euthanasia and believes that people with suicidal thoughts do not need lethal help but need life-saving assistance. The Rights of the Terminally Ill (Euthanasia Laws Repeal) Bill 2008 is intended to overturn the federal government’s ban on both the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory having laws to allow euthanasia. It also aims to reinstate the Northern Territory’s 1995 euthanasia law.

Legalised euthanasia puts pressure on vulnerable people who feel they have to justify their existence because they know their continued illness is putting strain on family and friends. The euthanasia law, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995, operated in the Northern Territory for nine months from 1996 to 1997 and during that time four people died by lethal injection.

Family First is concerned that there were a number of instances where what were supposed to be safeguards in the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law were ignored, calling into question the safety and effectiveness of the legislation. For example, there was a requirement in the legislation that doctors certify that a patient was terminally ill before the patient could receive a lethal injection, but the legislation did not say what should happen if the doctors had differing opinions. In one particular case in the Northern Territory’s experience with euthanasia, the evidence provided by palliative care expert Professor Kissane was that one oncologist gave their patient’s prognosis as nine months but a dermatologist and a local oncologist judged that she was not terminally ill. There was no system in the legislation to deal with disagreements between doctors, so the particular person received a lethal injection despite the possibility that they were not terminally ill.

There was also a requirement under the legislation for a psychiatrist to have confirmed that ‘the patient is not suffering from a treatable clinical depression in respect of the illness’ as one of the conditions before the medical practitioner was allowed to give the patient a lethal injection. But this was also seen as another hurdle to clear, with Dr Nitschke saying of the four people who died by lethal injection:

All of them showed aspects of depression, and that, to my mind, was entirely expected. Ultimately, the question—and this was not brought out in the Lancet article—was: does that mean that they were so debilitated by that psychic condition that they had lost the ability to make rational thought?

This, of course, is contrary to the legislation and common sense on what depression does to people. To quote one journal article, the interest of depressed people in euthanasia is because they ‘often focus on the worst possible outcomes and are impaired by apathy, pessimism and low self-esteem’. They are not in a position to make good decisions, whatever you think of euthanasia. The danger with all legislation is that it can be seen as a list of requirements to overcome rather than protection against the abuse of patients or against mistakes. In this case, those seeking euthanasia could try multiple doctors until they find enough signatures to meet the requirements.

The Northern Territory’s nine-month experience with euthanasia demonstrated that the so-called safeguards in the legislation were not effective in protecting vulnerable people from a lethal injection. It caused fear in the Territory’s Aboriginal community. The Northern Territory’s euthanasia act should not be revived and the Senate should not support this legislation.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.