Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


Assisted Suicide

8:07 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In 1997, Kevin Andrews succeeded in pushing a private member's bill through federal parliament. It overturned the first legislation permitting assisted suicide in Australia, enacted in the Northern Territory. Since then, not only does assisting someone to commit suicide remain a serious crime in all states but it is also a crime in the territories. Three states have life imprisonment as the maximum penalty, while in others the maximum penalty varies from five to 25 years. This is extraordinarily cruel. The denial of the right to die at a time of our choosing can result in a lingering, painful death. It is also at odds with the fact that we have both a fundamental and legal right to choose whether we wish to continue living.

It is important to state this clearly, because people forget suicide was once illegal and failed attempts often led to prosecution. In medieval England, suicides were denied a Christian burial. Instead, they were carried to a crossroads in the dead of night and dumped in a pit, a wooden stake hammered through the body to pin it in place. There were no clergy or mourners and no prayers were offered. But punishment did not end with death. The deceased's family was stripped of their belongings, which were handed to the Crown. In fact, this remained the case until 1822. Michael MacDonald and Terence Murphy, in Sleepless souls: Suicide in Early Modern England, wrote:

The suicide of an adult male could reduce his survivors to pauperism.

Experts say that there was no significant campaign for a change in suicide legislation. Instead, there came a gradual realisation that the laws of the day were at odds with society's views and that care, not prosecution, was needed. Dr David Wright, co-author of the book Histories of Suicide: International perspectives on self-destruction in the Modern World, wrote:

From the middle of the 18th Century to the mid-20th Century there was growing tolerance and a softening of public attitudes towards suicide, which was a reflection of, among other things, the secularisation of society and the emergence of the medical profession.

This freedom is now mostly well accepted. While suicide is often an occasion for sadness, there is also a recognition that people do not belong to their families or to the government. An individual may have good reasons to take his or her own life, but even if they do not, it is still their own decision to make. But there is a catch. The law says we are only permitted to die by our own hand without assistance.

Indeed, in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and the ACT, reasonable force can still be used to stop a person from committing suicide. And if we are too weak or incapacitated to end our lives ourselves, we are condemned to suffer until nature takes its course. It is a serious offence for anyone to either help us to die, at our instruction, or even to tell us how to do it for ourselves. One of the consequences of this is that it can compel people to end their lives sooner than they would like. Understandably, people prefer to avoid the risk that they will become incapable of committing suicide themselves.

Most fair-minded people accept that painlessly terminating the suffering of animals is an act of compassion. As a veterinarian, I have often had the decision to put an animal to sleep placed in my hands because animals are not people and cannot give consent. However, for us humans, even when we give consent and beg for help, the law prohibits the same compassion.

There is no better marker of individual freedom than the ability to decide what to do with our own body. If the law prevents us from making free choices about it, then we are not really free at all; our bodies belong to the state. And yet, bodily autonomy is well-recognised in other areas. Nothing prevents us from getting tattoos, dying our hair purple—if we have hair—or sporting multiple studs and pierces. We are just not allowed ultimate autonomy.

Legalisation of assisted suicide is long overdue in Australia. Opinion polls show more than 80 per cent of Australians are in favour, across all political parties. It is high time governments accepted that, on this deeply personal matter, their intrusion is not warranted. Despite what some people think, this is not about bumping off granny to inherit the house. Assisted suicide is simply helping someone to do something that they would do for themselves, if they were not so ill or feeble. The absolutely essential element is voluntary consent, which is emphatically not merely implied consent or acquiescence. Moreover, this is not about living wills or withdrawing medical assistance. Those are different issues.

Equally, those contemplating suicide should be made aware of the availability of palliative care to make their last days less agonising and have treatment options in the case of mental illness. Indeed, the decision to die, with or without assistance, should be rational and well informed in all cases, including an awareness of the attitudes of loved ones left behind.

And of course, consent must be verified. Medical practitioners are no better qualified than anyone else to confirm this, but clearly the decision must be genuine. One of my concerns with Senator Di Natale's Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Bill—although I support its general intent—is that it overmedicalises the process, giving too much power to doctors

This is apart from the fact that it probably lacks a valid constitutional head of power.

In the short term at least, the easiest approach to facilitate the path to legalising assisted suicide would be repeal of the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997—the Andrews bill I referred to earlier. It removed the power of each of the territories to legalise assisted suicide, with a specific focus on repeal of the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995. While it is too late to simply reinstate the Northern Territory act, repeal of the Andrews bill would send a signal to states and territories that their legislatures may now turn their attention to this issue. As a bonus, it would support federalism in law-making. For too long, the Commonwealth has waded into areas that are properly the business of the states. I advise senators that it is my intention to introduce a bill to repeal the Andrews bill in the next sitting session.

Whatever we might think of the decisions others make about their lives, the law should respect their right to make their own choices. Whether as legislators or private citizens, our approval is neither necessary nor relevant. And the permission of the government should not be required, just as it is no longer required with respect to suicide.