NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Paul RussellNews Weekly
Euthanasia bill to come before Australian parliament
, July 5, 2014
A few weeks ago, a controversial euthanasia bill was re-introduced in the Canadian provincial parliament of Quebec. If passed, the laws will decriminalise euthanasia as “medical aid in dying” and protect doctors from criminal prosecution if they choose to participate in medically-supervised euthanasia.
It has been widely feared by pro-life activists that similar legislation could be introduced in Australia.
Such a bill, called the Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Bill 2014, was made public in Canberra on June 24 as an exposure draft by Greens health spokesman and former GP, Senator Richard Di Natale of Victoria.
The timing of Di Natale’s announcement could not have been more deliberate. Quebec’s “medical aid in dying” Bill 52 recently passed in the province’s parliament. However, it is being opposed by the Canadian national government, headed by Conservative PM Stephen Harper, and is already the subject of a legal challenge.
Bill 52 defines euthanasia as a form of health care. Di Natale’s bill calls it “dignity with dying medical services”.
These Orwellian terms are noteworthy for a number of reasons.
In Canada, the criminal code, whose sections on homicide prohibit euthanasia and assisted suicide, comes under the jurisdiction of the national parliament in Ottawa. Euthanasia and assisted suicide bills, therefore, would normally be debated in the national parliament, as occurred in 2010 with Bill C-384.
But the powers to legislate over health belong to the provincial parliaments. So, the national parliament being hostile to such change, the pro-euthanasia lobby has simply shifted its focus to the province of Quebec and re-badged euthanasia as “health care”.
In Australia, the situation is almost precisely reversed, which is why euthanasia debates normally take place in the states. But the Commonwealth shares power with the states over health. Again, with no state so far having been willing to legalise euthanasia, lobbyists have now shifted their focus to Canberra.
Senator Di Natale’s website says: “According to Section 51 (xxiiiA) of the Australian Constitution, the federal parliament has the power to legislate regarding medical services.
“This proposed bill uses this power to define a ‘dying with dignity medical service’ and authorise medical practitioners to prescribe, prepare and/or administer a substance that would assist a terminally ill person to end their life in a humane manner.
“It provides that the Commonwealth can pay for this service as it would for other medical services. It also indemnifies doctors from prosecution by the states.”
The Greens’ proposed bill provides for both euthanasia and assisted suicide and contains many of the usual imprecise, subjective tests and so-called safeguards that we’ve seen in recent state-based bills.
Senator Di Natale, in creating this “exposure draft”, seems to be suggesting that he may seek to initiate a parliamentary inquiry into the matter and canvass the idea by getting the inquiry to explore such issues as:
• Should the Commonwealth legislate in this area?
• Can it withstand a challenge if it conflicts with state law?
• Do the safeguards in place strike the right balance? Or is it too onerous to involve three independent medical practitioners?
• Does it contain sufficient protection for medical professionals?
• Should it remain restricted to terminally-ill people only?
The first two questions are pivotal. The acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide as a “medical service” is essentially a prerequisite to any bill of this nature being debated in Canberra, as it was in Quebec. The possible conflict with the Australian states may also occur in a manner that has been flagged in Canada, where there is the possible requirement for reciprocal legislation in each of our state jurisdictions.
These matters are far from settled. But note well Senator Di Natale’s other questions, concerning protection for doctors (but without any real concern for patient safety), and ambiguity about whether or not legalised euthanasia should be restricted to patients with terminal illness (inviting the obvious conclusion that such limitations may well be diluted).
Essentially, this is the “same-old, same-old” euthanasia-type bill with an adaptor plugged in so that it might be debated in the federal parliament.
In a further twist to the saga, I was alerted recently to a provision in the existing Medicare Benefits Schedule that is, at the very least, perplexing:
Under section G.13.1, “Services which do not attract Medicare benefits” include:
a) telephone consultations;
b) issue of repeat prescriptions when the patient does not attend the surgery in person;
c) group attendances (unless otherwise specified in the item, such as items 170, 171, 172, 342, 344 and 346);
d) non-therapeutic cosmetic surgery;
e) euthanasia and any service directly related to the procedure. However, services rendered for counselling/assessment about euthanasia will attract benefits. (Emphasis added).
The draft bill would most likely seek to remove subclause G.13.1.(e) from the schedule which, on the face of it, already allows doctors to counsel on euthanasia. (Local death clinic, anyone?).
Time will tell whether this bill develops further, but we will be watching.
Paul Russell is executive director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide www.noeuthanasia.org.au, and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) International. He blogs at http://blog.noeuthanasia.org.au