Canberra kills off the world's first right-to-die legislation

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The world's first law allowing voluntary euthanasia was itself put to death last night, less than a year after its birth, when the Australian Senate voted to overturn the historic legislation.

The decision in the capital Canberra brought anger in the Northern Territory, Australia's most remote region, where the euthanasia law began operating last July after the territory's parliament narrowly passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. "We're seething with outrage," said Shane Stone, the territory's chief minister, whose administration presides over an area the size of Europe with less than 1 per cent of Australia's population.

The world's first law allowing doctors to end the lives of terminally ill people at their request has aroused a storm of controversy since it came into force. Four people have died under the law: Bob Dent, Janet Mills, Max Bell and a patient whose identity has remained private. All had terminal cancer.

Although opinion polls indicate that more than two-thirds of Australians support voluntary euthanasia, the House of Representatives in Canberra used its powers late last year to override the territory's law. It passed a bill sponsored by Kevin Andrews, a backbench MP from the ruling Liberal Party, nullifying the law. After a passionate debate over the past week, the Senate, the upper house of federal parliament, last night endorsed the Andrews' bill on a conscience vote by 38 votes to 33.

In the heat of the controversy, the moral, legal and medical issues surrounding euthanasia became obscured by arguments about states' rights. Mr Stone had voted against the euthanasia bill last year in Darwin, the territory's capital, but later lobbied federal MPs in Canberra, the national capital, not to overturn the law.

"I don't accept the principle of euthanasia ..." he said. "But the issue now has gone beyond that to one of taking away the devolved powers of legislatures to pass the laws they want."

The federal parliament's vote consigns the euthanasia law to history, and ends the hopes of more terminally ill people who were said to be planning travelling to Darwin to use it. All four people who did die under the law were patients of Philip Nitschke, a Darwin doctor known as "Doctor Death" over his outspoken campaign in support of the law.

As the Senate last week began debating the Andrews' bill, a fifth patient, a British-born former nurse, 56, suffering from a rare cancer of the intestine, sent an emotional plea to Canberra calling on MPs to let the territory's law stand.

The woman, whose identity Dr Nitschke kept confidential, has lived in the territory for 15 years and has worked as a nurse among Aboriginal communities. In a letter to MPs, the woman said: "The prospect of recurrent bowel obstruction, with the associated pain and indignity, is almost too much for me to contemplate. I plead with you, do not support the [federal] bill or at least call a referendum. Please listen to those of us who are terminally ill, and too sick and weak to argue.

"I do not want to end my life prematurely because of the timing of this vote. I will die soon, but please let me, and those other terminally ill people in my position, decide when."

Anti-euthanasia groups have waged a strong campaign in Canberra in the nine months since the territory's law started operating. Led by the Catholic church, the right-to-life movement and the Australian Medical Association, and arguing that no law should sanction the taking of human life, the anti-euthanasia lobby put strong pressure on federal MPs to intervene.

Unlike Australia's six states, whose laws cannot be overturned constitutionally by the federal parliament, the Northern Territory is one of two federal territories whose powers of self-government derive ultimately from Canberra. The federal parliament can overturn a territory law by amending the self- government act, as it did last night with the Euthanasia Laws Bill.