Leyonhjelm’s euthanasia bill defeated: Three of the best pro-life defences
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, euthanasia advocate, Brian Owler thinks many of Australia’s MPs are ‘out of touch’ with the desires of the public to be given access to assisted killing. However, pro-life senators tell us that the majority of submissions to a recent federal inquiry were advocating for life, rather than for euthanasia. Below are portions of the presentations given by three Australian senators who voted against the recent Leyonhjelm bill which would have allowed the territories to pass euthanasia legislation.
Michael Dodson: Western Australia
Senator DODSON (Western Australia) (10:53): At present the constitutional framework of Australia divides legislative responsibilities between the states and the Commonwealth. The states are therefore different to territories. The residents of territories are therefore subject to a different legislative process than the residents of states. Under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, article 24.2 states:
‘Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of this right.’
We know that Australia’s attempt to achieve the realisation of that right, through the Closing The Gap campaign, has been an abysmal failure. First Nations people do not enjoy the same quality of life in this country at every stage of their existence, as shown in the national figures. In the womb, a First Nations child is at higher risk of contracting life-threatening bloodborne diseases. Last year, six First Nations babies died of syphilis. Our children are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes. They are at greater risk of contracting meningococcal and rheumatic heart disease. As teenagers, they watch their friends, their cousins and their siblings prematurely end their own lives. These facts are true of the Northern Territory and nationally. In the Kimberley region, where I come from, the suicide rate is the highest in the world.
By what most Australians call middle age, many First Nations people are already living with kidney failure, without sufficient access to dialysis. The burden of disease and disability in First Nations communities is far higher than it is in the general population. First Nations people are more likely to live with a severe or profound disability. They also die younger. On a national basis, First Nations men can expect to live to an average age of 69, while non-First Nations men can expect to live to 80. First Nations women can expect to live to an average age of 73, while non-First Nations women can expect to live to 83.
All governments—state, territory and federal—have failed to enact the necessary action to close the gap. The government is currently undertaking a refresh process, with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs announcing at Garma earlier this month that some two dozen new targets would be added as part of the refresh process. That seems a drastic amount of new targets, and only emphasises how we’ve failed to address the health issues suffered by First Nations people to date. With so many of our people suffering complex health conditions at an early age, there is a desperate need for culturally appropriate palliative care services in regional and remote areas. A review recently commissioned by the Australian government confirmed that 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.
During the debate on the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2017 in Victoria, former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating argued:
‘No matter what justifications are offered for the bill, it constitutes an unacceptable departure in our approach to human existence and the irrevocable sanctity that should govern our understanding of what it means to be human.
‘It is a mistake for legislators to act on the deeply held emotional concerns of many when that involves crossing a threshold that will affect the entire society in perpetuity.’
In Yawuru we have three concepts that guide our experience of life. They shape our ways of knowing and understanding, and are the collective approach to our existence on this earth and, to that extent, any afterlife that may come. They are: mabu ngarrungu(nil), a strong community—the wellbeing of all is paramount; mabu buru, a strong place and a good country—human behaviour and needs must be balanced in their demands and needs of what creation provides; and mabu liyan, a healthy spirit and good feeling. Individual wellbeing and that of our society not only have to be balanced but be at peace with each other within the context of our existence and experience.
This concept of interconnectedness is one that transcends across many First Nations groups. It is grounded in our understanding that human resilience is based on our relationships with each other and our connectedness with the world around us. The quality of life for individuals and for our communities are intertwined, not limited to the wellbeing of an individual. We are fundamentally responsible for honouring our fellow human beings. We are called to carry responsibilities, to exercise duties and to honour those who are in need, who are ill, who are elderly, who are dependent and those of the next generation to value life with love, respect and responsibility. This is true of family members and unknown individuals. Moving away from such principles and values begins to reshape the value of human beings and our civil society, in my view.
We exist not as solitary individuals; we exist within a family, a community, our cultures and ethos, and in the kinship landscape. I’m a great admirer of those who have cared for loved ones and made personal sacrifices to do so. Not everyone is able to do this, I know, and I do not condemn them for the choices that they make. In the broad sense, we are part of a common humanity. If we give one person the right to make that decision—that is, to assist in committing suicide—we as a whole are affected. If we give one family that right, we as a whole are affected. If we give one state or territory that right, we as a country are affected. If we give one nation the right to determine life, our common humanity is affected. I cannot support this legislation.
[Michael Quinn provided this transcript via Facebook]
James Paterson: Victoria
Cory Bernardi: South Australia
Senator BERNARDI (South Australia) (11:34): I rise today with the intention of detailing two important principles that have led me to oppose the Restoring Territory Rights (Assisted Suicide Legislation) Bill 2015. Senator Farrell quite rightly raises an important third principle, and that is the principle of doing dirty deals in order to achieve particular outcomes. I say ‘dirty deals’ because I can’t think of anything worse than trading off a life-and-death issue in favour of a political outcome against the wishes or knowledge of your own party room. It is, I think, a gross misuse of process. It is deeply disturbing not only that Senator Leyonhjelm maintains that the Prime Minister promised a vote in the House of Representatives—and promised to facilitate that—but also that the Prime Minister himself denies it. If you can’t believe a Prime Minister or a senator, it brings this entire process and this parliament into some element of question. I have enormous reservation about how we come to this point, because I believe there are many more important and critical issues that need to be resolved in this country than whether the Northern Territory and the ACT should have the right to legislate for state-sanctioned killing.
That brings me to my first point. The Commonwealth Constitution makes it very clear that the states have certain rights and responsibilities and the Commonwealth has certain rights and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities applies to the territories. We have the right to make laws that affect the territories and will overturn their own laws—that will disallow them, if I can put it like that. Such an event took place in 1997 with the passage of the Andrews bill, which prevented the Northern Territory from having a state-assisted suicide regime. It’s a regime, I might remind you, that was endorsed by, I regret to say, a neighbour of mine—when I say ‘neighbour’, I mean he lived in the neighbourhood that I lived in and I used to see him at the coffee shop, but we didn’t mix very much—the disgraced Dr Nitschke, who was quite happily putting to death people who didn’t have a terminal illness but just got sick of living. This is the same Dr Nitschke that professes to have a brewery now so he can import lethal gas and sell lethal suicide kits over the internet, or whatever it does. It makes me ill to think of how this callous man, in the name of compassion, likes to exploit the vulnerabilities of people, who perhaps need assistance, and put them to death rather than help them to enjoy life.
Nonetheless, we know the Northern Territory assisted suicide regime was misused. We know that. We also know that the states have the role and the responsibility to introduce assisted suicide regimes if they want to. We’ve seen that happen in Victoria. I don’t agree with that either, but it is entirely within the remit of the Victorian parliament to make that determination. If you want to change it, you should elect different people. But the territories are not states. If you look at the population of the Northern Territory, it’s 200,000 people. It’s got a large land mass and it’s had a series of relatively dysfunctional governments but, in terms of population, it’s not even the size of a number of South-East Queensland councils. It wants states’ rights, yet it has none of the responsibilities, or the ability to take responsibility, for some of the processes that go along with that. A case in point is the misuse of the assisted dying legislation that they introduced. Importantly—I’m interested in this—they voted against becoming a state. They actually voted against becoming a state, because they themselves knew that they weren’t capable of taking on that responsibility.
In the ACT, it’s even worse. If you want to give the ACT states’ rights and if you want to empower it to make euthanasia legislation, the ACT is the most left-leaning government, if you can call it that—it’s a council administrator—anywhere in the country. If you were to question how it will end up should you empower the ACT with euthanasia legislation or state-assisted dying legislation, look no further than what is happening in some of the most radical regimes around the world. These are the figures from a chap called Paul Russell, another South Australian, who’s got the HOPE initiative.
In Belgium, three children have been put to death under euthanasia laws. They were aged 17, 11 and nine. How are those safeguards looking now? Seventy-seven people have been killed because of mental disorders and behaviour. That is the sixth most common reason for doctor-assisted suicide in that country. Think about that for a moment. Once you break the taboo that it’s all right to help someone kill themselves, the only question is: what should be the limiting factors? If someone no longer wants to live, who are you to deny their right to kill themselves? It brings into question: why do we have suicide prevention things? Why do we have mental health support services? Why do we talk about the tragedy of farmers who contemplate this final act out of desperation? Supporting legalised, state-sanctioned assisted suicide is to say, ‘We no longer value your worth at any level.’ Just because someone has a temporary mental health disorder, just because someone is suffering from depression or just because someone feels they no longer want to live is not justification to support them in ending their own life. Quite the contrary: we should be looking to assist them.
What would you say if it were a 17-year-old? Perhaps you’d argue they don’t have legal standing, that they’re a minor, and so someone else should be able to make that decision for them. What if they’re 18? They’re an adult. They can go off to war and they can do a whole range of things. If it’s okay for an 80-year-old to say, ‘I want my doctor to kill me,’ why can’t an 18-year-old or a 28-year-old or a 38-year-old? That is the important principle here. To all the people who say, ‘I’ve got the right to end my own life when I can,’ where are you going to end that? In Belgium, we know a 17-year-old, an 11-year-old and a nine-year-old—all children—have been killed under this. Seventy-seven people have been killed because they had a mental disorder. I’m sure they were making a full and frank decision for themselves and the checks and balances had gone on there! In Belgium, more than half of the suicides occur within just three months of the request being made. They can just go to their doctor and a three-month process takes place for more than half of them. We also know that, in places like the United States where assisted suicide regimes are in place, there’s actually been an increase in the number of suicides. Doesn’t it fly counter to everything that we profess to value in the human dignity, in the innate worth, of every individual? We’re now encouraging them to take their own lives because that’s what they feel like doing. It’s the ultimate in liberalism or in libertarianism, except it has a profound effect on so many others as well.
The suicide rate in the US, where it’s been legal, has increased in the over-65s by 14½ per cent. There is the impact on other people. About a fifth of family members who actually witnessed an assisted suicide in places like Switzerland subsequently formed a post-traumatic stress disorder—another mental health issue, if I can couch it like that, which could be used to justify them ending their own life too. It truly is a slippery slope. It is a ride from which society cannot return, as soon as you start to measure someone’s worth by whether they want to live.
Then there’s the argument, of course, about pain. People, quite compassionately, understand and argue that, in insufferable pain, they should be able to choose to end their lives to prevent that. Palliative Care Victoria states that, in rare cases where all methods of palliation for pain and other symptoms fail, palliative sedation therapy is available to provide adequate relief from suffering. If we can accept that we can mitigate or limit this insufferable pain, the reality is that the justification used for assisted suicide is not actually about the pain itself but concern about the person in pain becoming a burden. In Oregon in the US, assisted suicide occurs primarily due to a loss of autonomy, for life being less enjoyable than you want it to be—for incontinence, for example, or for feeling like you are a burden on your family, your friends, your caregivers.
In this country we’ve had a recent debate and discussion about elder abuse, and quite rightly so. We are seeing ads on buses and elsewhere all around the nation, telling older Australians that, if they’re being exploited, beaten or otherwise abused, they should call the hotline. The best statistics I could identify were that between 2½ and five per cent of the older demographic may be vulnerable to elder abuse. What more abusive thing can there be than a manipulative family member or person outside of the family but close to the elderly person, applying pressure—you can call it abuse if you like—that they should end their own lives to stop them being a burden, to relieve those around them of the pain and suffering of having to care for a loved one who is no longer able to care for themselves? It’s entirely likely that those events and circumstances would occur. Encourage the elder to move on, whether you are a religious person or not, from the earthly cares, the mortality of this world. It’s likely it might be a carer at their wit’s end who is more likely seeking to be relieved of the burden of care and placing that guilt trip upon the person they care for.
We also know that, in Oregon, half of those who took lethal medicine under their assisted suicide regime cited that they were concerned about being a burden on their family and caregivers. We also know that around 79 per cent of those in Oregon took the lethal dose without a physician present. The question is: who did administer it? Who provided those checks and balances? Nobody really knows if it was self-administered or not. Surely, if someone’s had permission and been provided the wherewithal to end their own life, but they do it without a physician being present, they’re vulnerable to someone else doing it, perhaps without their knowledge.
Senator Abetz has quite rightly raised this in an earlier speech, and Senator Colbeck described this as state-sanctioned killing. It’s a term that is equally as applicable to capital punishment as it is to assisted suicide. For those who say, ‘We know this is very popular, because the polls will say it’s very popular,’ let me tell you that the death penalty is pretty popular in this country too if you ask the polls. If you say, ‘Should we implement that?’ they’ll say yes, but it’s still morally wrong. It’s still the wrong thing to do. You’d ask yourself, ‘What happens if the Northern Territory wanted to introduce the death penalty?’ Do we say that’s their right to do that, because we should take a hands-off approach to what is good for this country in the longer term or because it’s popular?
Populism is not an excuse for doing something, particularly when it’s going to have implications that will be felt for generations and, as Senator Farrell quite rightly pointed out, affects the life and death of individuals and affects deeply the lives of those around those individuals.
I note that one assisted suicide proponent, a neurosurgeon named Henry Marsh, said:
Even if a few grannies get bullied into it, isn’t that the price worth praying for all the people who could die with dignity?
Let me repeat that:
Even if a few grannies get bullied into it, isn’t that the price worth paying for all the people who could die with dignity?
The reality is, if you vote in favour of this, you are justifying that sort of comment. You are justifying the fact that maybe a couple of people will get bullied into killing themselves, because that’s the price you’re prepared to pay, or you’re prepared for others to pay, for the cliche slogan ‘to die with dignity’.
I make the point that Nembutal, the drug of choice for many suicide advocates, is the same drug used in executions. It’s the same drug that massive concerns have been raised about in those countries that have the death penalty, because the drug can cause not only death but also a huge amount of pain along the way. We know that in 10 per cent of cases in the Netherlands, where this drug was used, it took longer than the expected median of three hours for the person to die after taking this drug. In one case, it took the person seven days to die. We know that people are concerned about the pain inflicted upon executed prisoners in the States because they haven’t been adequately anaesthetised before taking the drug. Where state-sanctioned killing is allowed with the death penalty, and where it is the same drug as that advocated by some of the proponents of state-sanctioned suicide in this country, they can’t even get it right. But, somehow, we think we’re going to make all the difference and the problems that have afflicted the rest of the world, where these regimes have been impacted, are somehow not going to occur here.
I put to the Senate that there are many, many reasons why common sense prevailed on this question in 1997. It must prevail again. If the territories want to self-govern in this way, let them put it to a referendum on them becoming states. I know the Northern Territory rejected it. I can’t see any justification for the Australian Capital Territory becoming a state—I can only imagine the 12 senators they would elect to this place. Rights come with responsibilities. It’s not a party on the parents’ purse strings. They need to stand on their own two feet, if that’s what they want to do, but right now we have to help them to their feet. We have to guide them in the manner that our Constitution allows, because we have to do the right thing here. We can’t fall for trendy cliches and slogans. We’ve got to think through the consequences of every single action that we take. These consequences were thought through in 1997 with the Andrews bill. To repeal that bill would be a retrograde step, because there is no evidence whatsoever, anywhere around the world, that a regime like the one that is proposed to be introduced or allowed can function sustainably with the adequate safeguards that everyone assures us would be different in Australia.
[Australian Conservatives candidate, Sophie York, provided this transcript via Facebook]
This article from The Australian reports on two doctors who were brought in at the eleventh hour to advocate for life. According to the article, their intervention led to several senators changing their minds on the day of the vote.