Tide of voluntary assisted dying reaches new pinnacle

In what may be a symbolic moment for the nation, Northern Territory Senator Sam McMahon has introduced a bill in the Senate which gives the NT the right to enact its own legislation around voluntary assisted dying (VAD).

“This is an exciting and historic day for the Northern Territory,” she told ABC Radio Darwin yesterday.

“This afternoon I will introduce my bill into the Senate, which will give the Northern Territory the capacity to enact its own legislation around voluntary assisted dying.”

Senator McMahon, who sits with the Nationals, said that after the bill’s introduction it  would be read when there is a slot for private senators’ bills later in the year. The bill would then be sent to a committee, which would hold public hearings in the Northern Territory, with its report returning the House of Representatives, hopefully by November, she added.

Senator McMahon said she was confident of seeing the bill become law before the end of her term as a federal senator next year.

“There’s no guarantee, but I am extremely confident. I’ve done a lot of work on this and I’ve had lots of conversations with my colleagues. I know it won’t have unanimous support, but I believe it will have overwhelming support,” she said.

In 1995, the NT became the first place in the world to legalise voluntary euthanasia.

Four terminally ill people used it to die before the federal government stripped the NT and the ACT of their rights to decide their own euthanasia law. Since then, there have been several failed attempts to regain those rights.

While Senator McMahon’s private member’s bill is not an assisted dying bill, it gives the Northern Territory the right to pass legislation in this area, a move that reflects a change of mind around VAD in parliaments across Australia.

VAD has been operational in Victoria since June 2019, in Tasmania from April 22 this year, and in Western Australia from July 1.

The latter date was when South Australia enacted VAD legislation while a bill to allow VAD is expected to be debated by Queensland’s parliament in September which, if passed, will make VAD available from early 2023.

There is a great risk in introducing euthanasia legislation in that it normalises suicide as a way to deal with suffering. – Megan Best

After voting down a VAD bill in 2017, NSW could become the final Australian state to consider the vexed issue again, after Independent MP Alex Greenwich announced in March he was drafting a private member’s bill based on the West Australian model.

Christian ethicist Megan Best is worried that VAD legislation is used more than expected and more frequently over time.

“There is a great risk in introducing euthanasia legislation in that it normalises suicide as a way to deal with suffering. And I think that it distracts people from doing what we can to improve the suffering of people without killing them,” warns Best, a doctor with a clinical background in palliative care and a Research Associate with the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Best believes people trying to access to legislation see so-called safeguards as barriers to be overcome. She believes no safeguards – no matter how stringent or well executed – would ever be adequate.

I think vulnerable people are at risk just by the mere presence of euthanasia legislation. There’s no way you can protect against coercion. A lot of coercion can occur within families behind closed doors. There’s just no way of policing the things that put people at risk.”

She adds: “I don’t think it’s possible to write a safe euthanasia bill because behind every euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide bill is the assumption that some lives are not worth living.”