A move to legalise euthanasia in New South Wales was defeated in the state’s upper house, the Legislative Council, on May 23.
The Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill 2013, sponsored by Greens member Cate Faehrmann MLC was defeated in the NSW upper house by 23 to 12 votes. There were effectively five abstentions and one non-vote due to an unfilled vacancy.
In her closing speech and comments to the media following the bill’s defeat, Ms Faehrmann said that she expects an identical bill to be introduced into the NSW lower house some time soon. However, given the resounding vote against the bill, one wonders how House of Assembly MPs will view the prospect of debating a bill which, even if passed in the lower house, would face certain defeat again in the upper house.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide remain highly emotional issues, as evidenced by several noteworthy speeches both for and against the bill. It would be a callous person indeed who was not moved by the difficult personal stories raised on both sides.
Reading the Hansard parliamentary records of this and other recent debates on euthanasia, it would be impossible to conclude that our parliaments had not engaged with the issue in a meaningful way.
A number of NSW politicians referred to a recent report, produced by the think-tank Australia 21, which recommended changes to the current law. Some of them quoted a Royal Society of Canada report, which also favoured euthanasia. Both reports in various ways wrongly claimed that the euthanasia laws in the Netherlands and Belgium operated satisfactorily and without risk.
Opposing these arguments, a Liberal upper-house member, David Clarke MLC, quoted numerous studies referred to by Canadian author Alex Schadenberg, chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) International, in his book, Exposing Vulnerable People to Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide (reviewed in News Weekly, April 13, 2013).
Mr Clarke said: “The truth is that the euthanasia laws of the Netherlands and Belgium contain a whole string of safeguards which, it was promised, would ensure against abuse of their new euthanasia laws, but this is not what has happened in practice.
“The so-called safeguards have been abused, evaded and ignored. They have been ineffectual; they have been a total failure. The result has been that many people, a significant percentage, have been euthanased without proper and informed consent. Particularly among the elderly, there is a fear that should they be admitted to hospital or nursing care facilities they risk the prospect of being euthanased without their consent.
“This is not a wild assertion on my part but is based on evidence and fact. For example, in 2010 it was widely reported, including by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, that in the Belgian region of Flanders over 30 per cent of euthanasia cases were conducted without the consent of the patient, according to detailed investigation by Belgian and Dutch researchers.
“This conclusively showed that between June and November 2007, of 208 reported deaths involving the use of life-ending drugs, 66 were without an explicit request by the patient. It showed that in 77.9 per cent of cases without a patient’s consent, the euthanasia option was not even discussed before they were euthanased and that most were undergoing medical treatment with the hope of a cure for their illness.
“Under the Belgian law, which allows euthanasia without terminal illness and for those who are suffering from constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain, the law has three supposed safeguards. It requires a patient’s written consent, the opinion of a third physician in cases where an illness is not terminal and a one-month waiting period for patients suffering from depression.
“Yet despite the law enshrining these three procedural requirements before patients can be euthanased, it was found that many physicians were simply ignoring such requirements altogether. In addition, the Belgian media reports that physicians are hesitating to report euthanasia for fear of judicial problems, with an estimated one in four making formal reports of euthanasia.
“In the Netherlands we find a similar and increasing situation where euthanasia is being administered without a patient’s consent. In July 2012, for example, the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics reported that it had found that of deaths resulting from euthanasia or assisted suicide 7 per cent were done without an explicit request of the patient.
“Do I have any confidence that the safeguards contained in the Greens’ euthanasia bill will be any more effective in preventing euthanasia without consent than the safeguards contained in Dutch and Belgian laws? No, I do not.”
A pro-life Labor member of the NSW upper house, Greg Donnelly MLC, also referred to the Schadenberg book and to the role played in the Australian euthanasia debate by the organisation, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide.
He said: “In answer to people who wonder why I and others so strongly oppose the proposed legislation, in relation to what we see are fundamental flaws in euthanasia/assisted suicide legislation and our challenging of some of the things that proponents for the legislation claim are not true — such as the slippery slope arguments — I draw their attention to a book entitled Exposing Vulnerable People to Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, written by Alex Schadenberg.
“The book has been provided to most members in this House, and probably in the other place [i.e., the NSW lower house] as well, as part of the provision of information by the organisation, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and I thank that organisation for circulating the book.”
Mr Donnelly concluded with a generous acknowledgement of the contributions of his parliamentary colleagues. He said: “I participate in this important debate on the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill 2013. Honourable members present, past and no doubt future understand that it is a privilege to be given an opportunity to serve the citizens of New South Wales in this place. It is an honour that very few ever get to experience.
“Since 1824 both men and women have been carrying out the important duties that go with being a member of the Legislative Council. Those duties are many and varied, but at the core lies the participation in and overseeing of the making of laws for this state. The ability to do so is derived from the Constitution Act 1901. That Act provides for the making of laws for the ‘peace, welfare and good government of New South Wales in all cases whatsoever…’.
However, he warned his listeners: “I submit that what is being proposed presents unequivocally a clear and present danger to the health, welfare and well-being of one of the most vulnerable groups in the state at a time when they overwhelmingly need our care, support and love.
“I have no doubt in my mind that they would be the serious impacts of this bill if it ever made it onto the statute books. I also believe that a number of members in this House and indeed the other place support this view.”
Paul Russell is founder and director of the Australian network, HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide www.noeuthanasia.org.au, and vice-chairman of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) International. He blogs at http://blog.noeuthanasia.org.au