Senate kills off Leyonhjelm's Assisted Suicide Bill
At 7.03 pm on Wednesday 15 August the Senate rejected the Leyonhjelm Assisted Suicide Bill by 36-34 votes, which would have paved the way for assisted suicide to be legalised in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the Northern Territory (NT).
With Senators from all parties having a conscience vote on the Bill – a clear sign that it was essentially about assisted suicide rather than territories rights – the outcome of the vote was difficult to predict, with several Senators changing their position as the vote drew closer.
The defeat of the Bill leaves in place the provisions in the ACT and NT self-government acts that prevent their respective legislative assemblies from making any law permitting euthanasia or assisted suicide. These provisions were enacted in March 1997 after the Northern Territory passed the world’s first law authorising euthanasia. Four people were killed by lethal injection by Dr Philip Nitschke before the NT law was overturned by the Commonwealth Parliament.
The ACT has been holding an inquiry into End of Life Choices and was expected to recommend an assisted suicide or euthanasia law when it reports on 29 November 2018. However, any such recommendation will now be moot due to the outcome in the Senate.
The efforts of the newly formed Australian Care Alliance helped secure the defeat of the Bill with One Nation WA Senator Peter Georgiou attributing his change of mind in part to a visit by Dr Steve Parnis, former AMA Vice President and Dr John Daffy from the Alliance.
Senator Paterson (Liberal, Victoria) pointed to the inevitability of wrongful deaths under any assisted suicide law:
Because we are all flawed human beings, I recognise the profound limitations we have as legislators. Despite our best intentions, there are aspects of human behaviour that we can never perfectly regulate, no matter how hard we try. The consequences of getting regulation wrong in most areas of public life are irritation and inefficiency, but when it comes to regulating life and death they are as profound as they can be. I am yet to see a system for regulating euthanasia anywhere in the world, including in my home state of Victoria, that gives me confidence that no person would ever be put to death wrongly. For me, even one wrongful death is one too many. In years to come, I suspect Victorians will regret the decision that our parliament reached late last year. I believe it is inevitable that there will be misdiagnoses, that some people will feel pressure, real or imagined, and that, if we start to normalise state sanctioned taking of life, the criteria will inevitably widen, as they have overseas. I’m worried that the participation and tacit endorsement of the state and the medical profession in this process will compromise both.
Senator Eric Abetz (Liberal, Tasmania) noted that there was no remedy for mistakes
Once you make a mistake with a death penalty, there's no turning back. Once you make a mistake with state-supported suicide, there's no turning back. It is final. It is over.
Senator Amanda Stoker (LNP, Queensland) highlighted the disturbing message given by legalising assisted suicide:
This bill and the policy of euthanasia represent a defining moment in who we are as a people. If passed, it is a fundamental change in the way that we approach human existence, the essence of life. It sends a disturbing message that there are some people in our community who are better off dead. The impact of that message goes beyond that which can be mitigated by what are often referred to as 'safeguards to assisted suicide'. It means that when a person becomes dependent because of their age, their illness or their disability, a social pressure will inevitably emerge for that person to, as an act of compassion for their families, end their life, lest they become a burden on others. That culture of dying will permeate our medical and social frameworks leading to a subtle expectation that those who require care should choose not to be resource intensive by volunteering to die.
Senator Deborah O’Neill (ALP, NSW) pointed to the very real risk of elder abuse and of discrimination based on disability:
That brings me to the very real threat of assisted suicide legislation advancing at a time in this nation when recent reports are urging us, as legislators, to give serious consideration to developing legislation, social leadership and agencies to curb increasing elder abuse—undue influence of one family member over another. Similarly, fears of the exploitation of the disabled were well articulated by Senator Steele-John last night in his contribution. I note Senator Steele-John indicated his support for the legislation, but he quite powerfully described the reality of living with disability, about which he perhaps has the greatest insight of all in this chamber. As he put it, four million Australians with disabilities are denied adequate access to the services they need and want, and violent abuse and neglect is still endemic. It is in this context, some fear, that euthanasia enters.
I also wanted to put on the record the words of the much loved Stella Young, Australian comedian, writer and disability advocate, who wrote on the implications of legalising assisted suicide for people living with disabilities. I acknowledge that many of us felt we lost an amazing Australian with her passing. This is what she said:
People make all sorts of assumptions about the quality of my life and my levels of independence. They're almost always wrong.
I've lost count of the number of times I've been told, "I just don't think I could live like you," or "I wouldn't have the courage in your situation," or, my favourite one to overhear (and I've overheard it more than once), "You'd just bloody top yourself, wouldn't you?".
Also, social attitudes towards disabled people come from a medical profession that takes a deficit view of disability. This is my major concern with legalising assisted death; that it will give doctors more control over our lives.
Senator Steele-John's confidence in legislators to create legislation that adequately protects people is a confidence I don't share. In my view, legislation, no matter how well crafted, considered and critiqued, cannot cover all the areas of concern that have been articulated in this place by many—and, hopefully, with some clarity in my contribution to the debate this morning. I'm also sure that there are many more concerns that haven't been raised in the course of this debate that are yet to be elicited and will deserve careful consideration. In my view, we're all right to fear assisted suicide as an extension of an increasingly alarming statistic of self-harm and suicide that reveals the despair of so many in our nation at this time.
Senator Patrick Dodson (ALP, WA) speaking from his perspective as a Yawuru man explained that:
In Yawuru we have three concepts that guide our experience of life. They shape our ways of knowing and understanding, and are the collective approach to our existence on this earth and, to that extent, any afterlife that may come. They are: mabu ngarrungu(nil), a strong community—the wellbeing of all is paramount; mabu buru, a strong place and a good country—human behaviour and needs must be balanced in their demands and needs of what creation provides; and mabu liyan, a healthy spirit and good feeling. Individual wellbeing and that of our society not only have to be balanced but be at peace with each other within the context of our existence and experience.
This concept of interconnectedness is one that transcends across many First Nations groups. It is grounded in our understanding that human resilience is based on our relationships with each other and our connectedness with the world around us. The quality of life for individuals and for our communities is intertwined, not limited to the wellbeing of an individual. We are fundamentally responsible for honouring our fellow human beings. We are called to carry responsibilities, to exercise duties and to honour those who are in need, who are ill, who are elderly, who are dependent and those of the next generation to value life with love, respect and responsibility. This is true of family members and unknown individuals. Moving away from such principles and values begins to reshape the value of human beings and our civil society, in my view.
We exist not as solitary individuals; we exist within a family, a community, our cultures and ethos, and in the kinship landscape. I'm a great admirer of those who have cared for loved ones and made personal sacrifices to do so. Not everyone is able to do this, I know, and I do not condemn them for the choices that they make. In the broad sense, we are part of a common humanity. If we give one person the right to make that decision—that is, to assist in committing suicide—we as a whole are affected. If we give one family that right, we as a whole are affected. If we give one state or territory that right, we as a country are affected. If we give one nation the right to determine life, our common humanity is affected. I cannot support this legislation.
The Australian Care Alliance congratulates the 36 Senators who voted to reject assisted suicide:
Eric Abetz, Fraser Anning, Cory Bernardi, Slade Brockman, Brian Burston, David Bushby, Matthew Canavan, Michaelia Cash, Richard Colbeck, Jacinta Collins, Mathias Cormann, Patrick Dodson, Jonathon Duniam, Don Farrell, David Fawcett, Connie Fierravanti-Wells, Mitch Fifield, Alex Gallacher, Peter Georgiou, Lucy Gichuhi, Jane Hume, Chris Ketter, Steve Martin, James McGrath, Jim Molan, Deborah O'Neill, Barry O'Sullivan, James Paterson, Helen Polley, Linda Reynolds, Ann Ruston, Scott Ryan, Zed Seselja, Dean Smith, Amanda Stoker, John Williams
(along with Senators Kimberley Kitching, Arthur Sinodinos and Bridget McKenzie who were absent for the vote but also opposed to the Bill.)