Australia 1996 euthanasia debate, arguments opposing euthanasia remain intact

By Paul Russell, Founder, HOPE Australia

Editor’s note. This is excerpted from a post that appeared last week [noeuthanasia.org.au] in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the introduction into the Australian Federal Parliament of the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996. Mr. Russell maintains that the arguments made in opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide then remain intact today.

Kevin Andrews MP

Kevin Andrews MP

Next month will mark the twentieth anniversary of the introduction into the Australian Federal Parliament of the Euthanasia Laws Bill 1996. Introduced on the 9th of September 1996 by the Member for Menzies, Kevin Andrews MP, the bill was designed to remove from the Australian Self-Governing Territories the ability to pass legislation relating to euthanasia and assisted suicide:

The focus at that time was to effectively nullify the earlier passage of The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTTI) 1995 by the single-chamber Parliament of the Northern Territory. That Act commenced operation on 1 July 1996. Four people died under the provisions of the Act before it ceased operation.

ROTTI had earlier been unsuccessfully challenged in the Northern Territory (NT) Supreme Court and by an amendment bill and a repeal bill in the NT Assembly.

Following an extensive debate The Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 was passed by both houses on the 25 March 1997. It became the first and only legislative measure anywhere in the world to completely overturn existing euthanasia and assisted suicide legislation. …

These objections were put exceptionally well by MPs who supported Andrew’s initiative, perhaps none better that by the Member for the seat of Melbourne, The Hon Lindsay Tanner MP.

Tanner came to politics through university student movements and into the Australian Labor Party’s Victorian faction known as the Socialist Left or simply ‘SL’. That Tanner, a self-identified and career-long progressive-thinking politician should oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide once again highlights the reality that opposition to legislative change is not characterised by a ‘left-right’ divide any more than it can be said to be a division along religious lines, as Tanner himself notes.

The following excerpts are from his speech supporting the ‘Andrews’ Bill’ given in the House of Representatives on the 28 October 1996 (headings have been added):

On the question of autonomy:

“But there is a very different question at stake here; that is, not whether in some individual circumstances there is something morally wrong, but whether the state should legalise and indeed can safely legalise such practices. This debate should not be about one or two individual experiences, not about our own experiences, but about the broader social question. Just as the question of capital punishment cannot be determined by one or two murders, by one or two gross and appalling examples of killing, neither should our view on euthanasia be determined by our own experiences of one or two personal tragedies. We must look beyond those experiences to the broader view of the interests of society at large and the interests of the individuals who make up society.”

On Church v State:

“It has been argued that this bill put forward …is about the separation between church and state. I would disagree with that analysis. I think it is also worth noting that just because the churches take a particular view does not therefore make it wrong. Most of us would probably agree with the churches on a few fundamental issues like murder, rape, assault and so forth. So whether the churches take a position is really neither here nor there.

“To me this is an issue about the relationship between state and citizen—not between church and state.”

On the lack of safety:

“I am troubled by euthanasia because I think it is virtually impossible to draw safe boundaries, because I think it is virtually impossible to prevent abuses and mistakes and because I think it is virtually impossible to justify offering the option of assisted suicide to one category of people when you deny it to others. That is a necessary implication of the Northern Territory legislation.”

Euthanasia as a misuse of power:

“I regard individual freedom in our society as essentially very fragile, as very vulnerable to misuse of state and bureaucratic power. Intrinsically, the state assuming the right to sanction killing of a citizen, for whatever reason, troubles me a great deal. Even with apparent consent, it worries me. I refer those in my part of the political spectrum, most of whom have a different point of view from me, to debates that have occurred on issues like the Australia Card (1), where the same sorts of concerns about fears of misuse—obviously not on the same life or death scale, but fundamentally the same framework—occurred. Others laughed and said, `You are paranoid, it is excessive,’ and the like, but many on the Left had the same sorts of concerns there.”