September 8th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Lessons of the influx of 'boat people'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Northern Territory election: why the CLP lost

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: SA Parliament debates third Euthanasia Bill

TRADE: Making sense of trade policy

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Bleak House, The gravy boat, The rights of children

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA drugs summit takes predictable path

Letters: Teaching infrastructure

Letters: In praise of Serong

COMMENT: Preferential option for the family

QUEENSLAND: Red tape swamps fishing industry - FABA

INTERVIEW: Networking key to success: anti-euthanasia activist

Books: 'The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon', by Anthony Summers

Books: It Ain't Necessarily So, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, S. Robert Lichter

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SA Parliament debates third Euthanasia Bill

by Paul Russell

News Weekly, September 8, 2001

On July 25, the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill before the Upper House of the South Australian Parliament passed the second reading stage by a vote of 10 to 9. While supporters of the Bill were no doubt encouraged, they would also be well aware of the likelihood of a reversal in the voting on the next occasion.

Trevor Crothers MLC summed up the pro-euthanasia position when he told the Legislative Council: "I know that many of you here will not support [that] tonight but we may well, like the Chinese water torture, just gain one more convert ..." (Hansard, July 24, 2001). Interjecting, Sandra Kanck, in whose name the Bill stands, added, "It won't go away. They will be back again."

No doubt, the commitment of Parliamentarians such as these, with the resolve of the Voluntary Euthanasia Lobby in support, will see this issue rise again and again until such time as a "favourable" outcome is achieved. As the President of the National Civic Council, Mr Peter Westmore, said in Adelaide last year: "We need to win on every occasion; they need win but once."

This current bill, the third of its kind to be debated in the SA Parliament in less than a decade, takes a great deal of its structure from the 1996 Levy Bill; both, it is said, being similar to the Oregon "Death with Dignity" Act of 1994.

A new study published in the May edition of The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that of the 2,641 Oregon doctors authorised to prescribe lethal doses of euthanasia, many struggle with the professional and ethical issues related to this responsibility. The report concluded that "a large portion of physicians, despite not being morally opposed to assisted suicide, have practical concerns about participating in the Death with Dignity Act and only a minority are willing to provide a lethal prescription to a qualified patient" adding that, "some physicians who are willing to assist in legalised suicide may lack the knowledge necessary to evaluate patients' eligibility".

The "Dignity in Dying Bill 2001" would similarly be found to cause dilemmas for South Australian physicians. A number of definitions upon which the administration of the Bill rely are extremely vague, and therefore open to a wide variety of interpretations.

For example, section 14 (1) states: "A medical practitioner may administer voluntary euthanasia to a patient if (a) the patient is hopelessly ill; and (b) the medical practitioner, after examining the patient - (i) has no reason to suppose that the patient is suffering from a treatable clinical depression" [italics added].

Hopelessly ill is not a recognised medical term and therefore has no meaning which could guide a physician's decision. Similarly, no reason to suppose offers no indicators as to what standard of practice he or she might apply to arrive at a conclusion regarding the patient's mental state.

The attempted safeguards in the bill also contain ambiguities. Example: Section 7 (2), in relation to providing information to a patient prior to a formal request for euthanasia, requires that a medical practitioner providing information, if not a palliative care specialist, "must, if reasonably practicable, consult a palliative care specialist" [italics added]. Why use the imperative "must" in conjunction with the modifying phrase "if reasonably practicable"?

At the end of this proposed "process of death" the medical practitioner is protected from liability under Section 16 if he or she "administers voluntary euthanasia in accordance with this act."

The vague definitions and ambiguities including the examples above would make prosecutions for homicide extremely difficult to achieve, if not impossible. The opportunities for ideologically driven physicians to kill the sick and the frail while claiming immunity under the act are all too real. In every case, the principal witness will not be able to testify!

Lawmakers do not remain in control of a law once it is made. This is a point that our members of parliament would do well to reflect upon. As Wesley Smith, the US anti-euthanasia campaigner, recently said: "The culture of death has a voracious appetite" (The Age, August 22, 2001). He was referring to the Dutch euthanasia law and the mounting evidence that the legislation is being flouted. "A study published in 1997 in The Lancet reveals that about 8 per cent of infants who die each year in the Netherlands do so at the hands of their doctors. Not only that, but Dutch doctors have killed thousands of patients who never asked for euthanasia. This activity is so common it has a name: ‘termination without request or consent'."

Earlier on in the passage of this bill, Dr Philip Nitschke announced his intention to bring a Netherlands registered "death ship" near to Australian waters to ply his deadly trade under Dutch laws. More recently he advocated a "suicide pill" and suggested that the formula could be made available via the Internet.

Most recently, reports suggested that mail-order suicide kits are finding their way into Australia from overseas. It would seem that, not content with accepting the due processes of law and our parliamentary system, some euthanasia supporters, at least, are willing to do whatever is necessary to get their own way.

The debate, for the moment at least, continues.

- Paul Russell is the SA State President of the National Civic Council

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