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Monday, 28 October 1996
Page: 5920

Mr ALBANESE(5.40 p.m.) —This debate is hard—real hard. It is hard because it is about death. Most people are uncomfortable talking about dying. Even the most hardened politician, with the lobbying going on around this place in the last few days, shifts in their seat and pauses on the phone as to what their view is. This is understandable because most of us avoid confronting death until we absolutely have to. But if anything is certain it is that the experience of death from this life will be universal. So this debate, as hard as it may be, is important. The outcome come of this debate will reflect on our maturity both as a parliament and as a nation for it will determine the manner in which we seek to control each other's lives.

I oppose this bill because I support human dignity. I oppose this bill because I support freedom of choice. I oppose this bill because I support civil liberties. I oppose this bill because my Christian upbringing taught me that compassion is important. I oppose this bill because modern medical practice should be open and accountable, not covert and dishonest. I oppose this bill because I believe that the national parliament should only intervene against the state or territory legislature when there is overwhelming public support to do so on a national level. I oppose this bill because I oppose the moral posturing of the Lyons Forum. I oppose the hypocrisy of those who say, `This debate is so important' and then vote to debate it upstairs in sideshow alley.

Most importantly, I oppose this bill for one critical reason, and that is this. We have all accepted that this parliamentary debate should be a matter for our conscience. How arrogant to then suggest that the ability to exercise conscience should be taken from a terminally ill patient who wants to die. There is nothing moral about our exercising a free conscience vote as members of parliament and then voting to deny to others the right to exercise their conscience. What possible right do Kevin Andrews, Leo McLeay, Lindsay Tanner or Anthony Albanese have to have exercised Bob Dent's conscience for him? It was his decision and he had a right to do that.

One might expect, given the strength of some members' points of view in this debate, that voluntary euthanasia is not practised in Australia. We all know that it is. It has been ever since the advent of conventional medicine. Indeed, a survey conducted in Victoria in 1987 revealed that approximately 14 per cent of all medical practitioners admitted to performing active voluntary euthanasia. A survey conducted some six years later in New South Wales indicated similar results. If one looks behind these statistics, one finds that over 7,000 registered medical practitioners have assisted their patients to die. The real figure, I would suggest, is much higher. They have broken the law. So either we should charge them or we should change the law.

It is fortunate that some terminally ill people have been in a position to have their desire to end their pain agreed to by compassionate medical practitioners. However, this has occurred in an environment which is neither regulated nor entirely foolproof. To those who would argue that there is no need to legalise euthanasia because it is already occurring, they are simply endorsing covert procedures that embody many more dangers than the Northern Territory act would ever permit.

As Marshall Perron, the former Chief Minister for the Northern Territory, stated:

It is surely preferable to have voluntary euthanasia tolerated in specific circumstances with stringent safeguards and a degree of transparency, than to continue to prohibit it officially while allowing it to be carried out in secret beyond any form of control.

The Northern Territory act sets in place strict criteria for a person to become eligible for euthanasia. It demands that persons seeking euthanasia have a mind which is sound but a body which is suffering from a terminal illness. There are over a dozen steps that both patient and practitioner need to satisfy before becoming entitled to use the act. In a system such as that in place in the Northern Territory, there are safeguards on top of safeguards.

As to those in the community who would mount religious or moral arguments against the Northern Territory act, reliable evidence suggests that they do not represent mainstream opinion. If one tracks support in the Australian community for voluntary euthanasia, they will find that support over the last decade has been over 70 per cent in favour with approximately 15 per cent against. The remaining percentage constitutes those undecided. The latest polls have confirmed this. The Newspoll survey in July of this year showed 75 per cent in favour and 18 per cent against. A Morgan poll last month showed 76 per cent in favour, 17 per cent against and seven per cent undecided.

One poll result may be wrong, possibly two, but every poll taken of the Australian community in the last decade has resulted in resounding support for voluntary euthanasia. It does not stand to reason that we should be resisting the will of the Australian community in such a blatant fashion. We should strongly resist the emergence in Australian politics of the moral minority.  It also does not stand to reason that we should seek to play a part in willingly prolonging the agony and despair of people whose illnesses we do not, and hopefully will not, share.

Together with community support for voluntary euthanasia, a 1994 postal survey of almost 1,300 doctors registered in New South Wales and the ACT showed that a majority of 58 per cent of respondents believed the law should be changed to allow active voluntary euthanasia. Therefore, we find that when the general community and health professionals have an opportunity to express their views they invariably support amendments to the law that make voluntary euthanasia permissible. We as public representatives must take seriously the view of the electorate. If the general electorate and those who might actually have an involvement in voluntary euthanasia strongly support its availability, then who are we to stand in its way?

None of us here knows first-hand the spirit sapping pain of terminal illness. None of us can comprehend the solitude and agony of coping with endless pain—from chronic bed sores to internal pain that no amount of morphine can allay. It would be an injustice to those whose illnesses have advanced to the stage where they believe their life is devoid of quality and beyond repair to say, `No, you cannot choose the time in which you depart this world. I'll decide it for you What self-righteous hypocrisy.

Suffering of this sort destroys a person's very fibre—their physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. Is it not just a final insult to an individual's integrity, rights and dignity to say to them they have no autonomy when it comes to ending their suffering? Yet this is an all too obvious consequence should this bill be approved.

I know and have known people suffering terminal illness. It is emotionally draining to watch someone fade away. What I find particularly disturbing is the fact that they have had no control over their destiny. This is for the most part all predetermined by well-meaning medical staff in collaboration with their family, if they are lucky enough to have one.

Many patients are provided with every possible life prolonging contingency so they may live another day or another week. I say to those who wish this to occur, `That is your choice. You are entitled to it.' But for those people—and there are many—who do wish to see the voluntary euthanasia legislation continue this option should be given to them.

The opponents of voluntary euthanasia should not see it as a threat to their rights. Indeed, this act has no application to them. There is, however, a significant number of terminally ill patients who would be comforted by knowing that this option was available if the pain became just too much. To those who say that legalising voluntary euthanasia is placing too much power in doctors' hands, I argue the reverse. I think it is symptomatic that you have doctors in this House who have practised voluntary euthanasia but who are voting for the Andrews bill.

The measures in place in the Northern Territory not only safeguards patients' rights but empower those patients to make critical decisions about their treatment. I invite anyone to mount a plausible argument that says patients should not determine their course of treatment, whatever its form. The argument that there is a distinction between actions such as withdrawing life support or pumping morphine into a patient and voluntary euthanasia is at best a technical one. More often than not it is just false. This argument is designed to make those who remain alive feel comfortable about the process of death.

This brings me to the issue of palliative care. Palliative care may make life more bearable in some instances, but as Professor Baume, a distinguished former minister, said last year in the ninth Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture:

But even the best palliative care will not help everyone . . . there will be some people whose symptoms and distress continue, whose suffering is unrelieved, and who are condemned, as the law stands now, to suffer and to endure until they are lucky enough to die.

It is worth noting that since the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act has become law in the Northern Territory, the number of people in palliative care has increased by over 250 per cent. Funding has increased from $500,000 last year to $1.04 million this year. So much for that argument. If Kevin Andrews is fair dinkum, he would have amended his bill to increase palliative care funding instead of voting for a 10 per cent cut in the budget. That is the sort of hypocrisy which really turns people off in this debate. He is not fair dinkum. The extreme right-wing moralists never are.

Honourable members should be aware that a consequence of denying terminally ill people the right to choose when they die is that they may elect to commit suicide. Sometimes, if a doctor cannot or will not assist, this situation gives rise to clumsy and tragic suicide attempts. Fortunately, there are many doctors who appreciate these risks and who are prepared to act compassionately and responsibly to assist a person to die. But, of course, it is the wealthy and the better informed within our community who generally have access to that. In effect, the covert operations give an advantage to the affluent within our community, for they can always find someone to assist them. Meanwhile, the less well off continue to live with unbearable pain. Covert medical practices are never equitable.

Those who reduce this debate to one about unscrupulous family members chasing dying relatives' money or those who claim that life is sacred and under no circumstances should it be brought to an end are infringing on our sensibilities and the human rights of people who are dying. The logic of this `the kids will knock off their parents' argument reflects badly and, I believe, inaccurately on our society.

Far from undermining the respect due to human life, the Northern Territory act enshrines a new range of rights and liberties for those burdened with the debilitating effects of terminal illness. This bill removes the prospect of compassionate and humane relief being granted to people who have had enough. A theme of my speech has been to ask members of this chamber whether we have the right to judge persons who might elect to put an end to their intolerable pain.

Politicians spend their parliamentary lives judging what is right and wrong for the community, and the community spend a great proportion of their lives being subject to these decisions. I contend that the right to choose the time of one's death, when faced with an advancing disease, is a personal one. It should be outside the scope of this parliament to remove from one's grasp the right to choose when and how they deal with their burden.

Bob Dent's last letter is a sobering personal account, and I will conclude my remarks with this. In it he noted his four years of struggle against cancer. He stated:

My own pain is made worse by watching my wife suffering as she cares for me, bathing and drying me, cleaning up after my `accidents' in the middle of the night and watching my body waste away. If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted.

I read with increasing horror newspaper stories of Kevin Andrews' attempt to overturn the most compassionate piece of legislation in the world.

The church and the state must remain separate. What right has anyone because of their own religious faith (to which I don't subscribe) to demand that I behave according to rules until some omnipotent doctor decides that I must have had enough and goes ahead and increases my morphine until I die? If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don't use it, but don't deny me the right to use it if and when I want to.

To intervene at that point in someone's life is unconscionable. I oppose this bill and call upon all members of the House to do so.

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and, in accordance with the resolution of the House of 8 October 1996, the remainder of the second reading stage up to but not including the putting of any questions at the conclusion of the debate stands referred to the Main Committee.