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An Australian Timeline


Assisted dying advocacy in Australia

  • NSW and Victoria were the first states to found Voluntary Euthanasia Societies in 1973. (The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of NSW was incorporated in 1983 and changed its name to Dying with Dignity NSW (DWD NSW) in 2009.)
  • West Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (WAVES) formed in 1980
  • South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (SAVES) formed in 1983
  • Queensland Voluntary Euthanasia Society formed in 1987. Now DWDQ
  • Tasmanian advocates formed Dying with Dignity Tasmania (DwDTas) in 1992
  • Northern Territory Voluntary Euthanasia Society (NTVES) formed in 1995. EXIT International (previously the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation) was founded in Darwin in 1997.
  • YourLastRight.com, a national assisted dying law reform umbrella group, linking the nation’s Dying With Dignity lobby groups, was set up in 2010. The group accessed funding from the estate of Clem Jones on behalf of the state DWD organisations.
  • Australian Capital Territory advocates incorporated their branch of DWDnsw and formed Dying with Dignity ACT Inc. (DWD ACT) in 2012.

Attempts at legislative reform

  • In 1995 the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act by a majority of 15 votes to 10 after a fifteen-hour debate. Marshall Perron, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, introduced the bill[1].
  • On 25 March 1997, the Australian Federal Parliament passed the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which, although not technically repealing the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, removed the constitutional power of all Australian territories (The Northern Territory, The Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island) to pass any law permitting voluntary euthanasia
  • There have been multiple unsuccessful attempts to legislate for physician assisted dying in every state and territory except Queensland. For a full list see Appendix A on page 36 in the Australia 21 report How Should Australia Regulate Assisted Dying November 2012
  • The most recent attempt to change the law in NSW was the Rights of the Terminally Ill bill 2013 introduced by former Australian Greens MP Cate Faehrmann in the NSW Legislative Council.
  • In 2014, Senator Richard Dr Natale of the Australian Greens released an exposure draft of the Medical Services (Dying with Dignity) Bill 2014. This is the first time commonwealth legislation has been proposed that attempts to classify assisted dying provisions as a medical service under the auspices of the federal government. Previous assisted dying bills have all attempted to change state criminal codes and state healthcare provisions.

Significant events

In 30% of all Australian deaths, a medical end-of-life decision was made with the explicit intention of ending the patient’s life, of which only 4% were in response to a direct request from the patient.  These deaths included euthanasia: 1.8%, ending of patient’s life without patient’s concurrent explicit request: 3.5%; withholding or withdrawing of potentially life-prolonging treatment: 28.6%; alleviation of pain with opioids in doses large enough that there was a probable life-shortening effect: 30.9%.

The findings suggest that overall, Australia has a higher rate of intentional ending of life without the patient’s request than the Netherlands.

  • 2005 the Howard (Liberal) government passed the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2005 or Telco Bill. The Bill introduced new offences of using a ‘carriage service’ (the internet, emails, mobile and fixed telephones, faxes, radio and TV) for the purposes of counselling or inciting suicide, or promoting or providing instruction on a particular method of suicide. Possession or supply of material that is intended to be used for such offences is also itself an offence.
  • 2009 a judgment[2] is made in the NSW Supreme Court that set a precedent relating to the legally enforceable nature of advance health care directives. The decision outlined a set of principles for hospitals to follow in relation to advance care directives. The judgment is titled Hunter and New England Area Health Service v A [2009] NSWSC 761.
  • The Voluntary Euthanasia Party formed in 2013 to stand candidates with a single-issue policy platform of regulating assisted dying in Australia. The party contested the 2013 federal election and the 2014 West Australia recount and will stand candidates in the Victorian state election in November 2014 and the NSW state election in March 2015.
  • 2014 Dr Rodney Syme publically declares in an interview with The Age newspaper that he provided Nembutal to Steve Guest.  This generates much discussion and debate.  To date, Dr Syme has not been charged.

[1] A period of time was set before enactment of the legislation for the development of regulations to control the law.

Prime Minister John Howard opposed the NT Rights of the Terminally Ill Act and left the way open for Federal Parliament to overturn the Territory’s law.

South Australia’s first Voluntary Euthanasia Bill was presented in 1995 by John Quirke but was rejected without a full debate.

In 1996 the NT Rights of the Terminally Ill Act became law. This was the first legislative approval for voluntary euthanasia to enable physicians to practice voluntary euthanasia.

Subsequently the Act faced a series of challenges from opponents of voluntary euthanasia.

The Full Bench of the Northern Territory Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the Rights of the Terminal Ill Act by NT AMA President, Chris Wake and Uniting Church Minister, Jiniyini Gondara. They announced that the case would be referred to the Australian High Court.

Victorian Liberal MHR, Kevin Andrews, as a Private Member, introduced his controversial Euthanasia Laws Bill, designed to overturn the Territory’s law, into Federal Parliament.

Bob Dent, a Territorian suffering from terminal prostate cancer, became the first person in the world to receive legal voluntary euthanasia. Pro-euthanasia campaigner Dr Phillip Nitschke assisted Mr Dent to die using the NT laws.

The Andrews Bill was carried by a vote in the Federal House of Representatives, 88 votes to 35, thus overturning the Rights of the Terminal Ill Act.

The Andrews’ Bill was passed in the Federal Senate by 38 to 33 votes, ending legal assisted suicide in Australia.  An amendment, designed to allow the two people who had qualified to use the law to go ahead, was also defeated.

Dr Philip Nitschke announced that he had assisted others to die, including a man from Victoria. He established an Internet site to promote his work and the pro-euthanasia cause.

This Commonwealth legislation, the Euthanasia Laws Act, remains in force today.

[2] In this case, the defendant (Mr A) was a patient in a hospital conducted by the plaintiff (the Area Health Service).  Mr A had developed renal failure and was being kept alive by mechanical ventilation and kidney dialysis. The Area Health Service became aware that Mr A had prepared a document indicating he would refuse dialysis and commenced legal proceedings seeking declarations that the document prepared by Mr A was a valid advance healthcare directive and that the Area Health Service would be justified in complying with Mr A’s directive.

Justice McDougall made the declarations sought by the Area Health Service. The case is important because it is the first NSW Supreme Court decision that summarises the relevant legal principles surrounding emergency care decisions and the status of advance healthcare directives. This was NSW first Common Law case establishing that advance health care directives are legally binding in NSW.

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