Canberra kills off the world's first right-to-die legislation
Tuesday 25 March 1997
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.
- 1 BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
- 2 Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
- 3 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
- 4 The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
- 5 Swedish minister gives strongest case yet on why EU should stop turning away asylum seekers
BBC told new political editor must be 'impartial' with Nick Robinson reportedly stepping down
Isis propaganda video shows 25 Syrian soldiers executed by teenage militants in Palmyra
Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response yet from Ellen DeGeneres
The map showing the most dangerous tourist destinations in Europe, according to the Foreign Office
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...
£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...
£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...