Legalising euthanasia is a betrayal of compassion

Now that all of the Australian states have passed laws authorising euthanasia, the only jurisdictions where it is still illegal are the vast and underpopulated Northern Territory and the tiny Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra is located. A bill is being debated in federal parliament to permit these territories to legalise euthanasia as well. A Liberal MP from New South Wales, Julian Leeser, spoke against the bill yesterday. This is a slightly abridged version of his speech.

… Even if the Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 is passed I will not regret standing here today and being counted. There are times in your life when doing so is important, and today for me is absolutely one of those days.

I'm standing to speak about something that I know, at the very core of my being, is wrong. We've seen in the past that where this goes is monstrous. Nothing about what we're doing today is enlightened or compassionate, even though the proponents' intention may be to do so. As we rip apart these laws, what we are doing is ripping apart the values our society has stood for.  

I want to directly address the argument that's been made by the mover of this bill, the member for Solomon. He's argued that this is just about territory rights and not about euthanasia. I have great respect for the member for Solomon, but I could not disagree with him more. This bill endorses no other right than the right to kill his fellow Territorians. We hear a lot about territory rights. Well, I can't think of any political movement in history that has asked for rights and freedoms in order to kill people. This is a perversion of what liberty is about, and we should be deeply troubled by the idea that we are crossing this line.

Let me be clear: this bill deals with only one right, and that is the right to pass euthanasia laws in the territories.

The Northern Territory and the ACT are territories, not states, and there are reasons why the federal parliament has additional responsibility over these places. In 1998 the Northern Territory voted against statehood; it chose to be a territory, and it did so recognising the ongoing supervisory jurisdiction of the Commonwealth.

Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have no upper house—no house of review—and laws can be rushed through incredibly quickly. It should not be within the remit of the territory governments to authorise the deaths of their citizens.

Euthanasia and indigenous Australians

As the shadow minister for Indigenous Australians, I'm particularly concerned about the implications of euthanasia for Indigenous people. Indigenous Australians facing high rates of disease are particularly vulnerable to euthanasia legislation, and the Northern Territory government cannot be trusted to manage the introduction of something like euthanasia in a way that will have anything near the necessary safeguards.

We've seen that the Territory government, at the end of the Stronger Futures legislation, has been completely incapable of managing alcohol restrictions in communities, and the consequences have been devastating. Instead of creating a situation in which restrictions were in place unless opted out of, the Territory removed restrictions automatically. The Northern Territory government's failures are causing massive increases in domestic and sexual violence and hospital admissions.

Given the record of the Northern Territory government, how can we expect that something like the introduction of euthanasia will be properly managed, with adequate safeguards, and will not have devastating consequences in these places?

Euthanasia also runs counter to the values and beliefs of many Indigenous Australians. Many Aboriginal leaders have been clear that euthanasia is fundamentally at odds with their culture. In 1996, the introduction of the Northern Territory euthanasia laws was met with strong opposition from Indigenous people. As Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM told the Senate committee at the time:

It does not fit into our customary law. It seems to be seen as a form of sorcery, that you are doing something to somebody else. You cannot create a law within a parliament to take somebody else's life.

In 1996 Chips Mackinolty was commissioned by the Northern Territory government's Aboriginal steering committee to go to Aboriginal communities and to record people's views on the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act to feed back to government. Twenty-one community meetings were conducted across the Territory, with about 900 people participating. The results were virtually unanimous. Only two participants expressed support for the legislation, and at every single meeting people were strongly opposed to the legislation.

Indigenous leaders also voiced strong opposition when Western Australia introduced euthanasia. Senator Pat Dodson and Mr Ken Wyatt both opposed the law in their state, recognising the significant risk it presents to Indigenous people and the lack of meaningful consultation that had taken place. Anangu Pitjantjatjara woman Melissa Thompson wrote to WA MPs saying she was deeply concerned about the legislation. She said:

The last thing we all, Aboriginal people, need is another avenue to death. I don't want another death sentence for all my people and all of Australia.

Senator Pat Dodson has rightly argued that we must work harder to achieve stronger health outcomes for Aboriginal Australians instead of introducing laws to help them end their life. In 2018 he told the Senate:

… more needs to be done to ensure that First Nations people are receiving palliative care within their communities. Where First Nations people are already overrepresented at every stage of our health system, it is irresponsible to vote in favour of another avenue to death. Paving the way for euthanasia and assisted suicide leaves First Nations people even more vulnerable, when our focus should be on working collectively to create laws that help prolong life and restore their right to enjoy a healthy life.

I say, “We should listen to our elders.”

A lack of palliative care services

In both the ACT and the NT, more palliative care services are needed. During 2020-21, Western Australia accessed MBS-funded palliative services at 10 times the rate of the Northern Territory and at nearly twice the rate of people of the ACT. As Dr Michael Casey, chief executive of the PM Glynn Institute, says:

People say voluntary-assisted dying is about giving patients a choice, but if dying patients cannot access the palliative care services they need, they really don't have a free choice. We need to do more to ensure that everyone who needs good quality palliative care can access it, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances, before considering a momentous step like euthanasia.

In my view, no parliament in Australia should have euthanasia on its statute books, and yet since 2017 every state has passed legislation to make euthanasia lawful. Euthanasia laws in Australia are young, but they're already leaving a significant mark. In Victoria, 331 people died in the first two years following the introduction of the law. Advocates there predicted there would only be 12 people a year when the law first came in. In Western Australia, 171 people were euthanised between the commencement of their law, in 2019, and May 2022. In the latest report from Victoria, covering the period January to June 2021, the youngest applicant for euthanasia was 18—eighteen!

Every other state has now legalised euthanasia and is waiting for that law to come into effect. In a few short years our definition of what makes life meaningful and our understanding of the value of life have been quietly and significantly altered.

Why aren’t we listening to the experts?

One of the catchcries of modern politics is that we should listen to the experts. Why are the same people who chant that mantra ignoring the Australian Medical Association, which continues to oppose such laws? Very soon it will be normal for Australians to consider the idea that they might end their own life. With this law, we are fundamentally changing the relationship that people have with government and the compact that we have with one another. There is never a time in which a person's life is expendable. The consequences are broader than we would like to believe them to be.

When we look at the international experience we see, too, that there's a contagion effect over time, and more people choosing to end their life themself when facing terminal illness. In Oregon, where euthanasia was first legalised, an average of 34 people died each year for the first 10 years. Now an average of 134 people die each year. In the Netherlands, 4.4 per cent of deaths were from euthanasia in 2017, compared to 1.9 per cent of deaths when the law was introduced in 2002.

Legalising euthanasia means people who may never have considered ending their life now find themselves presented with that option. Other jurisdictions also show a tendency for the conditions under which it is permitted to grow looser as time goes on.

Euthanasia for people with disabilities, mental and physical

Today some might accept that terminal illness can make life unbearable, such that it should be ended. Tomorrow, we may start to wonder if perhaps a permanent severe disability of the sort that makes you unable to speak or toilet yourself makes life so unbearable that it should end. Next we will wonder about mental illness. If someone suffers from depression, should that be a reason, too, to say, “I've had enough”? I'm not talking here about a fantasy world. That road is precisely the one that has been walked in places that legalised euthanasia many years ago.

Today in the Netherlands euthanasia is available to children and to people with dementia or mental illness, rather than just physical disabilities. In Canada, within five years the categories of people accessing euthanasia expanded to include people with disabilities even though they don't have a fatal condition. How can we tolerate the idea that a disabled person's life should not be defended with as much fervour as that of an able-bodied person?

As Dr John Fox, a disability advocate in New Zealand, argued during that country's recent euthanasia debate, why is it that a 25-year-old fit and healthy rugby player goes to a doctor and says he wants to end his life and is referred to all sorts of services to help him find meaning and hope again, but if a 25-year-old disabled man goes to a doctor and says he wants to end his life, he's offered help to do so?

It's not compassionate to tell a suffering person their life is not worth fighting for. It's not a kindness to leave people in the position that they find themselves considering ending their life in order to prevent themselves from being a burden. I know that's not the motivation for those who argue for euthanasia, although I do believe that the consequences are very real.

I do want to acknowledge that the motivation for euthanasia legislation is often a deep desire to alleviate suffering. There's enormous strength of feeling in the arguments for euthanasia and the innumerable stories that lie beneath the discussion we are having today. Many people who are sitting through the debate fill their minds with the image of the last days of someone they've loved, someone whose suffering they'd do anything to alleviate. Some of us sitting here know that buried in the code of our own DNA is the potential for a terrifying illness, the sort that would mean a long, slow deterioration, with all our capacities slipping away at a pace that seems too slow to bear.

A deeper sense of compassion is needed

The suffering of life is real and the terror of facing our bodies fall, perhaps slowly, messily and painfully, is real. Yet what we debate today is not just the end of life for ourselves and the people we love; it's a very real decision about how we define how meaningful and valuable a person 's life is when they're at their most vulnerable. I believe our compassion must be stronger and deeper than passing this law would enable. We must commit ourselves to the best care we can manage for those who are sick. We must hold the value of a person 's life even when they can no longer see it for themselves.

In Oregon, detailed statistics have been kept for years, including about what has motivated a person to end their own life. The top five reasons do not include pain but do include a feeling that people are a burden on their family and friends.

In February this year a woman in Canada with multiple chemical sensitivities, a condition affected by chemicals and smoke, decided to end her life through euthanasia. Eight days before her medically assisted death, she filmed herself saying, 'The government sees me as expendable trash, a complainer, useless.'

In Australia we've seen a significant rise in mental illness and suicide over recent years, and we know that many people, particularly older Australians, are vulnerable as they wait for months to receive services. It's not alarmist to acknowledge that legalising euthanasia makes people even more vulnerable. We also know that medical advice can change, treatments can be found and medical assessment about a prognosis can be wrong. While there is life, there is hope. 

Erosion of a life-affirming culture

In the last parliament I spoke about how we continue to see the remnants of a life-affirming culture across our Australian society. I've always believed that we are a society with a culture that believes in the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person based on our Judaeo-Christian values. Such a culture values individual human life and sees it as sacred, as I do.

We see the remnants of our life-affirming culture across our society, from the campaign to reduce our road toll to the public and private funding of medical research to find ways to keep people healthy and to prolong life. We see it in the commitments of all governments—A$10 billion annually to prevent suicide. We saw it during COVID as we committed ourselves to taking action that would keep people safe and alive no matter their age and health status, shutting down large parts of our country for two years just to save lives.

But these remnants of the life-affirming culture are disappearing inch by inch and soul by soul, and the decision they're making with this bill cripples our culture even more. In this regard, and in a very personal sense, I cannot forget what the most civilised and enlightened society in Europe—which wiped out six million of my people in the Holocaust—began their program of industrial murder by euthanising vulnerable disable people who were thought to be in pain. I cannot in good conscience know this history and say nothing.

The law impacts who we are and what our culture looks like going forward. It operates as a standard-setter and as a teacher, and this law endorses a cultural change that I hoped we would never see.

I want to finish with the words of Dylan Thomas that I quoted last time I spoke on these issues in this place. It's galling to me that the proponents of euthanasia have called their organisation Go Gentle to make their case. They're turning on its head, in my view, all that Thomas was saying in his famous poem. Indeed, I think we should rage for life. We must rage for life. As Dylan Thomas wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light


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