22:05, September 27 77 0 theguardian.com

2017-09-27 22:05:03
A reading of past assisted dying debates record breathtaking ignorance and lies

As the law to permit voluntary assisted dying has been introduced to the Victorian and New South Wales parliaments in September, it is interesting to reflect on past contributions on the same subject.

Since the federal parliament overturned the first voluntary euthanasia law, the 1995 Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, in 1997, there have been 28 failed attempts to pass similar legislation in the states.

Unlike the Victorian bill, all of them were private members’ bills.

Each one of the bills was opposed by a well organised and funded religious lobby. Interestingly, the emphases of their campaigns played down the religious arguments and concentrated on spreading a plethora of lies and innuendo – what Andrew Denton calls FUD, fear of uncertainty and doubt.

The theory goes that with a subject as serious as death, one only has to create a hint that things could go wrong and that will cause timid politicians to back away. The success of this tactic relies on the legislators being too lazy or too busy to acquaint themselves with the facts before deciding how they will vote. A reading of past debates shows that there are plenty of MPs who fit this criterion.

The statements made by some speakers demonstrated they either had not read the bill they were debating or deliberately misrepresented what it contained. The lack of general knowledge about the extent and operation of legalised assisted dying in other places is also evident. Considering the information support services available to MPs this is unforgiveable.

Unsubstantiated claims about how laws are operating in legal jurisdictions are commonly made. Suicide contagion is alleged, so too stories of mass killings of babies, and a general fear by the elderly of being euthanised against their will.

Close examination of the sources of these claims reveals they usually emanate from organisations or individuals totally committed to preventing, or repealing, any law that permits assisted dying. Being firmly religious seems a hallmark of these activists.

Closer to home, the Hansard of parliamentary debates records some breathtaking examples of ignorance, or plain misrepresentation, of the proposal before parliament.

Just last May during debate on the Tasmanian bill, it was claimed a person with diabetes, or even severe acne, could get “caught up” and euthanised.

The most outrageous statements however were made during debate in federal parliament when the Northern Territory’s voluntary euthanasia law was overturned in 1997.

Despite the NT law being limited to competent terminally ill adults, ministers and senators said that the disabled, the poor, those with a physical or mental disability, infants, depressed teenagers, and anyone else who met one criterion, being distressed, could be assisted to die. It was stated third parties could apply on behalf of a patient when that was prohibited under the Territory Act.

The prize for the most preposterous statements however go to SA Senator Chapman, “Legalisation of euthanasia creates a very real possibility of selective culling of Australians” (Hansard p. 1891); to Mark Vaile, member for Lyne, “Making death an acceptable and legal solution to problems could pressure people, young or old, into taking this action – for example turning nursing homes into death camps” (Hansard p. 6487) ; and finally Paul Zammit, member for Lowe, “It has been estimated that some 25,000 Australians could be yearly candidates for voluntary euthanasia” (Hansard p. 6482).

The actual figure would be in the hundreds.

Predictions of impending social disaster should assisted dying be made lawful are disproved by the situation in Switzerland. Provided one does not benefit from the action, assisting suicide has not been an offence in the country for 60 years. There are no restrictions. The person being assisted does not have to be an adult, or even ill. The person assisting does not have to be an adult or medically qualified. Despite this extraordinary liberal situation, Swiss society has not broken down and the so called vulnerable are not living in fear of being coerced into an early death. Switzerland is the only place in the world where foreigners can go to receive assistance to die. Several Australians have done so.

We advocates for a law to permit competent adults living with unbearable suffering the option of assistance to hasten their death, accept that some will oppose the change. At issue is not so much differences of opinion, but it is the ignorant or dishonest claims and unfounded predictions made by opponents.

Politicians in particular should properly inform themselves before entering the debate on a subject of such intense personal interest to constituents.

We can only hope that the forthcoming votes in the Victorian and New South Wales parliaments come with a higher degree of research and honesty by members than has been the case elsewhere in Australia.

  • Marshall Perron is a former chief minister of the NT and architect of the world’s first voluntary euthanasia legislation – The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. 1995