Australia Delivers World's First Dose of Legal Euthanasia OUTBACK'S ASSISTED-SUICIDE LAW

By Caryn Coatney, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Australia Delivers World's First Dose of Legal Euthanasia OUTBACK'S ASSISTED-SUICIDE LAW


Caryn Coatney, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The isolated, frontier-like Northern Territory in north-central Australia is beginning to draw worldwide attention as the first open and legal test of euthanasia, or doctor-assisted suicide, anywhere in the world.

So far, two Australians, the most recent on Jan. 3, have ended their lives there with the help of a physician.

But now that people are making use of the law, it may be short-lived. The Terminally Ill Act of 1995 faces an attempt to overturn it by the Federal Parliament, as well as a potential legal challenge in the High Court of Australia, that nation's highest court. The United States Supreme Court hears arguments Jan. 8 on the legality of doctor-assisted suicide laws passed in New York and Washington States. Oregon has also passed an assisted-suicide law. None of them has taken effect pending the court's decision. Predictably, anti- and pro-euthanasia advocates point to the Northern Territory's experience to support their positions. After the law passed, Oregon right-to-life lobbyist Gail Atteberry predicted the territory would become "the suicide capital of the world." But Robin Fletcher, American spokesman for the pro-euthanasia Hemlock Society, said the act was a thoughtful, compassionate approach for people diagnosed as terminally ill who want to end their suffering. Analysts cite two reasons to explain the passage of euthanasia legislation in the Northern Territory when similar efforts elsewhere have foundered. Unlike in Australia's six states, the territorial legislature does not have an upper house, meaning the legislation required only a single vote. The territory's leader at the time, Chief Minister Marshall Perron, introduced the euthanasia bill, which took only three months to become law. In a heated overnight debate, the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly passed the bill 15 to 10. Critics say Mr. Perron pushed to enact the legislation because he wanted to make his mark on a hitherto undistinguished career before departing from political life. The act allows a doctor to administer a lethal substance (known as active euthanasia) to a patient diagnosed as terminally ill who is over 18 years old and experiencing unacceptable pain, suffering, or distress. Or a doctor can prescribe or prepare a lethal substance to be administered by the patient (known as physician-assisted suicide). The Northern Territory's position on euthanasia goes further than that taken by the Netherlands, the only country in the world where euthanasia is practiced openly. There, euthanasia has not been legalized, but doctors are guaranteed freedom from prosecution if they adhere to a set of official guidelines. A patient diagnosed as terminally ill must voluntarily request euthanasia after experiencing unacceptable suffering with no prognosis of improvement. Polls suggest that a majority of Australians support euthanasia. The legislation has been welcomed by the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations. The Doctor Reform Society, a coalition of doctors who also support health-care reforms and consumer rights, gives limited support to the legislation but does not force this position on its members. Euthanasia is opposed by the largest doctors' group, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), and a coalition of religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. They worry that the law will lead to the sanctioning of involuntary forms of euthanasia and the devaluing of human life. Polls have also failed to register the widespread fear and hostility toward the law among Aborigines, who make up one-third of the territory's population. The Rev. Djiniyini Gondarra, an Aboriginal leader, sees the legislation as an example of government attempts to dismantle Australia's indigenous Aboriginal culture and traditions, which are staunchly anti-euthanasia. "Our law has been ignored," declares Mr. Gondarra, a Uniting Church of Australia minister. "There should be magaya - peace, order, and good government. …

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