It’s not very often that I find myself in agreement with Phillip Nitschke. We’ve been on opposite sides of a number of debates both formal and informal in recent months. But in Launceston he surprised me.
In my presentation I described the bill in South Australia sponsored by Steph Key MP pointing out that it was very much a euthanasia free-for-all. I drew the audience’s attention to the fact that the bill did not even put up the pretence of safeguards (so-called). I invited the three persons in opposition to us (including Nitschke) that night to join me in opposing the bill (if they believed in ‘appropriate safeguards’ as at least one of the three states on his website).
Nitschke responded in very clear terms by saying that the bill in question was a ‘decriminalization model’ of euthanasia and that he wholeheartedly supported it. And of course, he’s right. The bill effectively removes from the homicide section of the criminal code direct killing and assisting in suicide if the defendant (doctor or nurse or others assisting) ‘believed on reasonable grounds that the person was an adult person of sound mind who was suffering from an illness, injury or other medical condition that irreversibly impaired the person’s quality of life so that life had become intolerable to that person (the qualifying illness)’.
Others attempts in the procession of euthanasia bills in South Australia have been modelled either to be stand alone acts in their own right or amendment bills to other statutes — but none before had taken such a direct route as to audaciously alter the criminal code. The debate in South Australia has been muddled by the protagonists’ assertion that the bill is not about euthanasia; rather, it proposes, they say, protections for doctors from prosecution in the normal course of their work. We have pointed out that doctors already enjoy the necessary protection in caring for patients by way of Sections 16 & 17 of the Consent to Medical Treatment and Palliative Care Act 1995. As others have observed, doctors have not been lobbying the government for additional protections and, even if they did, surely any changes would normally be by way of a government bill presented by the Health Minister seeking amendments to the treatment and palliative care provisions of the aforementioned act (not the Criminal Code). The Key bill, of course, is a private members bill.
It is difficult to tell whether MPs are genuinely confused or whether the supposed confusion allows them to vote with impunity, deflecting any criticism from their electorate. (“…but I thought it wasn’t about euthanasia…”). The clarity of the assertions of the Australian Medical Association (SA) and the SA Law Society in their joint statement last week has obviously not convinced some and it is legitimate to wonder why.
However, better that we simply look to what has occurred in respect to this bill since its first draft appeared late in 2010. On the 23rd of November, Health Minister, the Hon John Hill MP, tabled a draft euthanasia bill for consideration which he proffered as an alternative to the bill being debated in the Upper House at that time sponsored by The Hon Mark Parnell MLC (subsequently defeated). Hill had earlier commented to the media that he thought Parnell’s bill to be ‘clunky’ and unworkable. He made it clear that his draft was an alternative euthanasia scheme. This ‘Draft’ became Steph Key’s bill with some minor, yet telling amendments in the context of the current confusion:
The Hill Draft Title: Criminal Law Consolidation (Voluntary Euthanasia) Amendment Bill 2010. Insertion of section 138 l3B Criminal liability in relation to voluntary euthanasia etc
The Key Bill Title: Criminal Law Consolidation (Medical Defences—End of Life Arrangements) Amendment Bill 2011. Insertion of section 13B 13B Criminal liability in relation to end of life arrangements.
Additional clause in the Key Bill: the defendant believed on reasonable grounds that the person was an adult person of sound mind who was suffering from an illness, injury or other medical condition that irreversibly impaired the person’s quality of life so that life had become intolerable to that person (the qualifying illness);
The underlined clause (above) is the only substantive change adopted in the Key bill from Hill’s original draft. Other than that we have the Hill draft talking about euthanasia in the title of the bill and in the title of the section to be inserted while the Key bill talks about ‘medical defences’ and the euphemistic ‘end of life arrangements’.
Let’s bell the cat: John Hill designed a bill that he thought was a better way to approach legislative change on euthanasia. Steph Key changes a few words, adds one clause (that, interestingly, is the only clause in either schema that actually looks like it belongs in a classic euthanasia ‘safeguards’ package) and, somehow, this is now not about euthanasia?
Need more convincing? How about this quote from Professor Margaret Somerville :
First, the bill would legalize euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The fact that this is done by way of providing a defence for doctors who participate in these actions does not alter that fact. And contrary to the impression that some people seem to have about the bill, this is not a rare approach. Indeed, euthanasia was first legalized in the Netherlands in 1974 in exactly the same manner, with the difference that it was through a court judgment, rather than legislation.
Or this from the AMA/Law Society letter:
‘The effect of the Bill is to decriminalise murder, manslaughter, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia in certain circumstances’.
Or this from the group, Doctors Opposed to Euthanasia:
The bill in question has been characterized as a defence for medical practitioners when, in reality, it is about creating an opportunity for doctors to end the lives of patients, in other words: euthanasia.
Need we say more?