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The Exit Internationalist

February 8, 2023

Doctor Philip Nitschke to lobby for progressive euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory

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Doctor Philip Nitschke to lobby for progressive euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory, as others call for caution
By Jane Bardon at the ABC on 13 January 2023.

A doctor who assisted the first person in Australia to go through voluntary euthanasia wants the territory’s laws to be like Switzerland’s
Seniors organisations say many elderly people fear the laws could be abused 
“She was in pain and she had lingered a year, two years, too long,” the chief executive of the Council on the Ageing (COTA) NT said. 

“She had a nerve disease and also was slowly dying of heart failure, which she knew, and each day, each week, it was worse and worse. She was an ex-nurse and said to me, ‘I don’t want to be in nappies’.

Ms Shearer said her mother had asked her, when she was going to Mexico, “to bring back some Mogadon for her” [editorial note – mogadon is not a lethal drug.]

“I said, ‘Mum, imagine if I’m caught at Customs, I can’t’,” Mr Shearer said.

The Northern Territory government was the first place in the world to legalise voluntary euthanasia in 1995.

Federal Liberal government legislation was quickly passed to quash the laws.

Nearly two decades later, the NT and ACT have regained the right to pass voluntary assisted dying laws, but the Fyles government has said it will take time to draw up its promised legislation.

It said the law won’t be introduced until the next parliament, if Labor wins another term.

However, government ministers and backbenchers are already being lobbied by those who want the planned legislation to allow maximum freedom, and those who want tough restrictions.

The chief minister has also promised her members a conscience vote.

Ms Shearer said the majority of the thousands of seniors her organisation has surveyed want assisted dying laws to be passed, but with limitations similar to those that Australia’s states have chosen to impose.

Parliament lifts ban on territory euthanasia laws

The Commonwealth imposed the veto on the Northern Territory and the ACT in 1997, but the Senate has now voted to remove it.

“Quite a few people are worried that if they do get dementia, that if they do have money that they’ve saved over all their life, that their children might want their inheritance early, so they are the real concerns of people,” she said.

Ms Shearer worries there will be a concerted campaign against having any laws, and so she thinks the government should introduce conservative legislation at first.

“Lets just proceed with caution and not frighten people,” she said.

“There’ll be a scare campaign like there was last time, in all the Indigenous communities, so with that in mind, I think we go ahead cautiously and keep it to the terminally ill.”

However, the NT government is being lobbied by the doctor who assisted with the world’s first legal voluntary euthanasia injection to pass progressive laws that give the public maximum freedom.

Philip Nitschke vividly remembers the day in 1996 that he helped Bob Dent, who had terminal cancer, to die in Darwin.

Philip Nitschke wants the Northern Territory to pass laws allowing voluntary euthanasia with few restrictions. (ABC News: Tristan Hooft)

“Bob said ‘come round on Sunday, we’ll have lunch and I’ll die at two’,” Dr Nitschke said.

Bob Dent was the first person to use the NT’s short-lived voluntary euthanasia laws in 1996.(Supplied)

“And then finally, at the end of that very difficult ham sandwich, Bob got up and said ‘let’s do it’, and he walked into the next room.

“I’d made a machine. Thank God, the machine gave me a little bit of distance, it allowed him to press the button.

“I was on the other side of the room; he pressed the button, pushed the machine to the side, I sat there waiting for the 15 longest seconds of my life.

“He died peacefully in his wife Judy’s arms; the overwhelming feeling was that Bob had got the relief he wanted and my overwhelming feeling was, thank God it worked.”

Doctor Philip Nitschke to lobby for progressive euthanasia laws in the Northern Territory

Dr Nitschke is arguing the Northern Territory should introduce laws that allow people to be assisted to die whether they are sick or not.

“The territory led the world with its ground-breaking legislation, they’ve got the chance to do it again,” Dr Nitschke said.

“I’m hoping they don’t just make the same mistakes we see being played out in the other states of Australia, because there’s a chance to do something better and unique.

“Territorians saw themselves as better than the rest of Australia — we’re tougher, we’re different, we’re outback — so I’m saying if it’s going to happen anywhere, I think something different could happen in the territory.

“I’m not down lobbying the ACT in the same way I’m going to be spending time in Darwin.”

The Northern Territory sparked global controversy in the 1990s when it became the first place in the world to legalise euthanasia. Then, the federal government overturned it. But that all changed yesterday.

Australia’s states have limited voluntary assisted dying to the terminally ill, as judged by doctors.

“Basically they’ve tried to codify the degree of sickness that you have to have before you’re eligible, and you have to submit yourself to an adjudicating panel, usually doctors, to decide if you’re eligible,” Dr Nitschke said.

“What we’ve got now in the other states of Australia, with their proudly proclaimed 60 and 70 safeguards, is elderly people jumping through hoops trying just to demonstrate eligibility to die.”

Dr Nitschke now spends most of his time in Switzerland studying its laws.

“There you can get assistance to die if you satisfy two very important criteria: you must be of sound mind and you must carry out the process yourself,” he said.

“What that’s made possible in Switzerland is all sorts of situations where you don’t have to prove you’re sick.”

Those concerned assisted dying laws could leave vulnerable people open to abuse are urging the Northern Territory to fall into line with the other Australian states.

Darwin’s Catholic Bishop Charles Gauci has written to his congregation to say that “all life is sacred”.

He plans to write to Northern Territory government members, urging them to do more to reduce a public desire for assisted dying by investing in more and better palliative care.

Charles Gauci wants the NT government to improve palliative care.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)
“If the law was to pass, I certainly would want to see that there were very careful provisions put onto it, that there is not open slather, for many reasons,” Bishop Gauci told the ABC.

“Let’s face it, we know it has been happening anyway and I know it has been happening in many hospitals, all over Australia — people have taken overdoses of painkillers.”

He said access to palliative care should especially be improved in remote and regional areas.

“I have been with dying people for many many years and I have helped people to die peacefully and in the best possible way that they could under the circumstances,” he said.

“I have seen good quality pastoral and good quality palliative care that’s helped people to actually grow through the dying process.”

Marc De Leeuw says the NT government should start by taking a cautious approach.(Supplied: Unsplash)
University of New South Wales senior lecturer Marc De Leeuw — who specialises in bioscience and ethics — said he could see why the Northern Territory government might want to be cautious.

“These legislations are very sensitive so it is very important that there is overall support in the population,” Dr De Leeuw said.

“And, if the Northern Territory implements a very radical or much more progressive legislation compared to all the other Australian states, you might have a constant debate about this.

“So I think it is very important for this legislation to succeed, [so] that once it’s enacted people can see how it goes, and then build more progressive legislation from there.”

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