Euthanasia laws will prevent ‘undignified’ deaths, bioethicist Peter Singer says after territory bill cleared

Key Points
  • Australian territories have been banned from legislating on assisted dying for 25 years.
  • A bill passed federal parliament this week to lift the ban.
  • Philosopher Peter Singer says MPs must now ask “difficult questions”.
The Australian Capital Territory will start community consultations early next year on voluntary assisted dying laws after a quarter-century ban on its ability to legislate on the issue was overturned in the federal parliament.
All of the states in Australia have already legalised the practice, or will have, by next year.
Senators cheered and hugged as the passed federal parliament on Thursday, with advocates and political representatives from the ACT and NT looking on from the public gallery.
Australian Lawyers For Human Rights Vice President Nicholas Stewart told SBS News that territories have been dominated by the “overpowering” federal government.
“Our constitution says that the Commonwealth government has the power to make laws for territories,” he said.
“That means that when territories try to make laws that might be inconsistent with the Australian government, then the federal government has the power to override those laws. That’s what we’ve seen over the last 25 years.”
The embargo was put in place by the federal government after the Northern Territory became the first jurisdiction to legalise euthanasia in 1995.
It meant the territory couldn’t implement its desired legislation, and was overruled.

A similar case occurred when the federal government blocked the ACT from legislating gay marriage.

Mr Stewart says territories shouldn’t be left behind when there is a clear legislative trend across the country.
“It would be a strange situation for the Commonwealth not to allow the territories to make laws with respect to euthanasia where every other state in Australia has legislated for it,” he said.
Australian moral philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton University Peter Singer says there is a “threefold distinction” between voluntary, non-voluntary and involuntary assisted dying that was important.
“Voluntary euthanasia or voluntary assisted dying, is what we’re talking about for legislation in Australia, which all of the states now have, and is with the informed consent of the person whose life it is,” he told SBS News.
“People have to go through various procedures and it’s not instant — they can’t just say: ‘Doctor, I want to end my life’ and the doctor gives them a drug and they do it — they have to make a declaration, wait a certain number of days and restate what they’re doing.

“Sometimes there has to be a second doctor who examines them. So it has to be a fully voluntary decision. “

Australian philosopher Peter Singer, 2 June 2006. Credit: TEST PUBLISHING/PR IMAGE

Professor Singer said non-voluntary euthanasia would be when somebody’s not capable of giving consent.

“So a possible example might be with a newborn infant who has a devastating diagnosis, maybe they’re going to die, certainly within months, and they’re going to suffer a lot in the meantime,” he said.
“Doctors today, under those circumstances, will withdraw any life support that’s keeping the baby alive. And I don’t think that that’s morally, significantly different from giving that baby something that will make them die sooner rather than later, with less suffering.”
Involuntary would be euthanasia against the will of the person whose life it is, which is not being proposed and never has, he said.

Prof. Singer said now the embargo had lifted, MPs should start asking the difficult questions.

“Why do people have to suffer beyond the stage at which they believe their life is no longer worth living, when the medical prognosis is that it can’t get any better and is only going to get worse and possibly in death quite soon?” he said.
“Many people have wished their father, grandfather, mother, grandmother, could have had a more peaceful and more dignified end than she did.
“The legislation that we have now in the states of Australia does prevent those very distressing and undignified deaths from being a necessity and they give people the option for avoiding it.
NSW was the last state to accept assisted dying legislation in May this year, and Die With Dignity CEO Shayne Higson told SBS News the reform brought “huge relief” to some.
“Every day that any jurisdiction postpones these laws, it’s more families (that) are going to be traumatised watching their loved ones die,” she said.
“We’re really pleased that the federal government passed the bill that now has restored territory rights.”

This was the fourth attempt to overturn the 25-year ban.

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