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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2161


Ms PLIBERSEK (10:25 AM) —I rise to speak about the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2004 that is before us and about issues relating to suicide and voluntary euthanasia. I believe that these are very difficult and important issues that the parliament must take very seriously. We cannot stop suicide by restricting information about it. We cannot stop voluntary euthanasia by restricting information about it. The truth is that some people will always make a decision to end their lives, because of mental illness, depression or because they have a physical condition that causes them too much pain to bear. To simply imagine that we will reduce the number of suicides by restricting information is naive in the extreme.

Some time ago there was a very good ABC radio program—I think it was Background Briefing—about a doctor in Queensland who worked with young men who had attempted suicide. He specifically worked with young men who had attempted suicide using a gun. It is hard to believe that many people survive such an attempt but, in fact, a substantial number do. Most of them end up with quite serious injuries and often serious brain damage, as you can imagine. In talking about the young men that he dealt with, that doctor spoke about the sort of despair and alienation that they felt as teenagers. Frankly, whether or not there was information available to those young men on the Internet was going to make absolutely no difference to (a) whether they attempted suicide and (b) the method they chose.

It would be much wiser if we as a parliament, when we are trying to address the issue of suicide, talked about the incredible poverty of resources for dealing with mental illness in our community. Having seen the husband of a close friend try to commit suicide under very violent and disturbed circumstances, the support that was subsequently available to him and that family was obviously not enough to give me or them any confidence that he would be healed of his mental illness or that he would learn to live with it in a way that removed all doubt that he would never try to commit suicide again.

We need a great deal more resources for treating people who suffer mental illness. We also need to address some of the societal factors that drive people to suicide, such as depression, alienation, unemployment—all of these things are factors. Another factor that I think features largely—particularly with young men—is confusion about their sexuality. It is often reported that that is a factor in youth suicides, or attempted suicides. I think that if we, as a parliament, continue to vilify homosexuality, we only contribute to a society that sends young people the message that they are second-class citizens if they are homosexual. That is another area we have to address, rather than going for the quick fix of trying to ban information on suicide on the Internet.

Of course we have to discourage it. Of course in dealing with mental illness and depression and other factors that lead to suicide, we have to make a case very strongly that life is worth living and that young people or anyone considering suicide can get the help they need to get through life. But we do not get through to everyone and, when it comes to voluntary euthanasia in particular, I do not think it would matter how much of a contrary case we put to people. Someone who is suffering a terminal illness and is dealing with a great deal of pain is very unlikely, when they have determined to commit suicide—to engage in voluntary euthanasia—to be convinced by any amount of argument that that is not the right decision. In that situation I think it would be almost impossible to convince them of that, and I actually wonder whether it would be a fair thing to ask them to do. I do not know how much physical pain I could bear, especially if I was certain that the end result would be my death anyway. It may be a cowardly thing—people call it cowardly—but certainly, not knowing my own capacity for dealing with such a situation, I hardly feel in a position as a legislator to make decisions for other people in these circumstances.

Turning to the actual provisions of the legislation, the ones that concern me the most are those that state that a person is guilty of an offence if the material directly or indirectly promotes a particular method of committing suicide or provides instruction on a particular method of committing suicide and if the person intends to use the material to promote a method of committing suicide or provide instruction on that method of committing suicide or intends the material to be used by another person to commit suicide. It is pretty clear that an organisation like Exit Australia, which provides information about different methods of committing suicide, should feel nervous about this legislation. It is very possible for us as legislators to do something about situations where people are being harassed or where the Internet is being used to circulate images of child pornography or about other things such as credit card skimming, fraudulent activity to do with Internet banking, contamination of goods, mobile phone fraud and emergency service hoaxes. It makes sense to do something about these other things—hoaxes, threats, menacing, harassing, offensive behaviour and, particularly, child pornography and child abuse. Of course we should legislate against the Internet being used to circulate images of crime, but when it comes to circulating information that talks about methods of committing suicide I think we go into quite different territory.

The government has agreed, I believe, to split the bill and to refer the euthanasia and suicide sections to a Senate inquiry. That will be a very important opportunity for the voluntary euthanasia societies in each state—for Exit Australia and for others—to put a case for any amendments that are necessary to clarify that providing information about voluntary euthanasia should not be a crime. Certainly the Labor Party intends to move amendments that clarify that political discussion about voluntary euthanasia is certainly not a crime. We believe that we need to clarify beyond reasonable doubt that there is no offence where the constitutional doctrine of implied freedom of political communication applies.

The question arises: is there actually a lot of information floating around on the Internet that encourages or incites suicide? I did a little bit of investigation about this to see whether the government's concern is legitimate or whether they are actually trying to crack down on the discussion of voluntary euthanasia. Frankly, it was not easy to find sites that could be described as promoting suicide. In fact, I do not think any of the sites that I found promoted suicide, but there were a number that went into the details of how one might commit suicide if one wished to.

Probably the most well known of these is called ASH, alt.suicide.holiday, which originated from a newsgroup. It is not youth oriented; it is pitched to everyone. It seems that the maintenance of the site has fallen through, but it does talk about different ways of committing suicide. Another web site, ASBS or alt.suicide.bus.stop, grew from this site. It describes itself as neither advocating nor denouncing suicide but as being pro-choice about both suicide and euthanasia. It does not pitch itself specifically at a youth audience either. There is another site called How to Kill Yourself Using Inhalation of Carbon Monoxide, which is a personal account of the method used by Jerry Hunt to end his life. The web site Suicide and Attempted Suicide describes methods of suicide based on a book by Geo Stone. It appears to be restricted to providing information only, and it is not pitched at any particular demographic. It provides a links page to other neutral or pro-choice—as they describe themselves—suicide web sites. There is another site, called A Practical Guide to Suicide, which clearly outlines in detail various methods for committing suicide, although it suggests that people ideating suicide, particularly those under 23, should seek medical help. It goes on to provide quite detailed information on methods of how to commit suicide. We managed to find a couple of other sites as well.

It is not a great number—if you think about how many sites there are dealing with any particular topic, you could very easily find thousands of them. It is really very difficult to see how this legislation, even if it restricts access to half-a-dozen sites—which is difficult to understand because most of them would be based overseas in any case—will make any impact at all on the rate of suicide in this country, which I presume is the intention of the legislation. What it will do, I think, is to restrict information about voluntary euthanasia, which is a perfectly legitimate topic for discussion in Australia today.

I conclude by saying that Labor will support the referral of this legislation in the Senate to a Senate inquiry. I hope that the Senate inquiry examines the issues surrounding the implications for free speech and proper debate about voluntary euthanasia in particular. If the government does have a sincere intention to do something about suicide, it needs to look a lot further than the Internet for some real solutions.