August 11th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Doctor-patient privilege dies with My Health Record

EDITORIAL By-elections reflect disenchantment with major parties

CANBERRA OBSERVED Longman result may force PM to rethink policies

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS No question about it: the Don is in charge

ENERGY Lower electricity price a fantasy

EUTHANASIA Vulnerable will be victims of Leyonhjelm's deadly bill


PHILOSOPHY On human nature

CULTURE AND SOCIETY The shadow of that hyddeous strength

FICTION A Scent of Musk

MUSIC Globalised Music

CINEMA The Equalizer 2

BOOK REVIEW ADF as modern peacekeepers

BOOK REVIEW The men who built up a great tradition


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Vulnerable will be victims of Leyonhjelm's deadly bill

by Chris McCormack

News Weekly, August 11, 2018

Senator David Leyonhjelm’s proposed bill to allow the territories to legislate for physician- assisted suicide and euthanasia would, if enacted, have dire consequences for the vulnerable and frail of mind and body, leading to coercion and elder abuse, while undermining suicide prevention.


The Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill will be debated in the Senate on August 14–16. If passed, it will overturn the “Andrews laws”, named after federal Liberal MP Kevin Andrews, whose bill nullified the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, in 1997.

Four people died through physician-assisted suicide (PAS) in the NT in the nine months before the euthanasia bill was nullified, including one non-territory resident, as the law allowed so- called “suicide tourism” of non-residents. If the Leyonhjelm bill passes, “suicide tourism” could return to the NT.

A report in The Australian on June 27 claims Prime Minister Turnbull struck a deal with Mr Leyonhjelm to allow a conscience vote for coalition MPs in exchange for his support for reinstating the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2016.

What sort of a message does legally sanctioned PAS convey to those in the community with mental-health problems contemplating suicide? It makes a mockery of the work that organisations and governments do in suicide prevention, proclaiming to the community that suicide is a way to overcome any perceived pain or depression, suffering, disability or even tiredness of life.

Where euthanasia has been legalised, there has been an incremental expansion over time of the scope of the initial legislation.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, euthanasia has been extended to those with depression and anorexia nervosa, non-voluntary euthanasia (that is, nurses killing patients deliberately without request), euthanasia for infants and children with non‐lethal physical disabilities (of any age in Belgium and from 12 years of age in Holland), and euthanasia of the elderly who are “weary of life”.

In 2013, a single Dutch clinic helped kill nine psychiatric patients who had no physical disability. In a Belgian survey, 41.4 per cent of euthanasia deaths were found to have occurred without explicit written request or consent, and only 52.8 per cent of deaths via euthanasia were reported, as legally required. Abuse and coercion of those who cannot make informed decisions will naturally follow once governments legislate physician-assisted suicide.

Great advances in palliative care now mean that chronic physical pain can be managed effectively. However, there are widespread ignorance and misconceptions of the efficacy of pain relief in palliative care. Governments should be focused on investing in educating health professionals and the community of the incredible capabilities of palliative care rather than spending millions setting up a bureaucracy to encourage people to kill themselves, which will undermine advances in palliative care.

Although “unbearable pain” forms the basis of advocates’ arguments for legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia, it is rarely cited as a reason for choosing physician-assisted suicide in countries where it has been legalised.

Vulnerable, ill and elderly people are highly dependent for their sense of self-worth and self-esteem on the attitudes of those around them. They would be exposed to friends or family coercing them to seek euthanasia, possibly because of “early inheritance syndrome”, whereby an heir actively seeks their inheritance. Or possibly a person baulks at the idea of having to care for a relative or friend.

The distress relatives feel can also be transmitted unconsciously to the vulnerable person, exacerbating the feeling that they are a burden and would be better off dead. This fact leads to a developing perception, implicit and denied and all the stronger for being unspoken, in jurisdictions where euthanasia is legal, of a “duty to die”.

Governments and health providers can also use assisted suicide and euthanasia as a means of reducing health-care costs. Health economists routinely refer to the “savings” that can be made by ending the lives of those perceived to be a burden on society.

The World Medical Association (WMA) opposes physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia on the basis that they constitute the unethical practice of medicine. The WMA represents more than 10 million physicians and more than 112 national medical associations around the world, including the AMA. Assisted suicide and euthanasia undermine the trust between doctor and patient.

The British House of Lords called the prohibition of intentional killing “the cornerstone of law and of social relationships” in a medical ethics select committee report on euthanasia in 1994. Once a society condones killing for whatever reason, it irrevocably changes the culture to one of utilitarianism, where humans have value only so far as they are useful.

In relation to euthanasia in the Northern Territory, Paul Russell wrote in News Weekly (April 9, 2016) that Syd Stirling, MP for Nhulunbuy at the time, recounted the opposition to it among Aboriginal people: “I visited and spoke about this bill with Aboriginal people at Elcho Island, Yirrkala and Gunyangara in my electorate. … I visited Hermannsburg, Milingimbi and Nguiu.

“The view of these people was unanimous. They stated very clearly that it was wrong. They said that, when old people knew they were going to die and the land knew they were going to die, they had to come home to die on their own land and to be with their own family. I will quote Wally Wunungmurra from Yirrkala, who gave evidence before the committee. He said: ‘Ethically, culturally and traditionally, it’s wrong as far as Aboriginal people are concerned.’ ”

Like their white counterparts, the Aboriginals also feared the prospect of government and health workers deciding when it was “time for them to go”. Experience of euthanasia elsewhere has shown this is not an unreasonable fear.

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