Territory euthanasia is not a human right
Complaints that Canberrans have had their human rights denied because the Legislative Assembly cannot offer terminally ill people lethal drugs are a clever publicity stunt, but are completely without basis.
Simply put, Australia as set out in the constitution is a federation of six states. Commonwealth territories did not exist at the time of federation and they are subject to the powers of the Commonwealth government.
Territories like the ACT, the Northern Territory and Norfolk Island are ultimately controlled by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth grants powers and can take them away. For example, the constitution allows the governor-general to dissolve the ACT Legislative Assembly if the governor-general has the view that the Assembly is incapable of effectively performing its functions. This is much like state governments having the power to sack shire councils.
Some in the Legislative Assembly are concerned that the ACT cannot legislate to give people lethal injections or assist people to suicide. They say this is a basic human right.
But the real democratic issue is that the ACT is not a state and the ACT government is not agitating for change to statehood. If Human Rights Minister Tara Cheyne really wants equal rights with states, the logical step is to demand statehood.
The fact that the ACT does not have equal powers with states to legislate for killing patients with a terminal illness is only one of the many limits on the powers of territories.
The Commonwealth was right to overturn euthanasia legislation in the Northern Territory where euthanasia was legal in 1996-97 and to stop another small jurisdiction, the ACT, from taking such a dangerous step.
A review published in The Lancet of the operation of the NT legislation and euthanasia doctor Phillip Nitschke found that four of the seven people who sought a lethal injection had symptoms of depression, but the system did not pick them up. In fact, patients and advocates saw psychiatric assessment as a hurdle to clear rather than a safety check. Those desperate enough to seek euthanasia engaged in doctor shopping until they found one who would agree to their death. And a major reason for seeking euthanasia was fear of what might happen.
The Commonwealth government considered it had a special duty to ensure that Indigenous people were not detrimentally impacted by the passage of such legislation. This is a real blind spot for the ACT government when it comes to the care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Legal assisted suicide would put the most vulnerable people at risk: people who are terminally ill and do not want to be a burden to their loved ones. They deserve better care, rather than a lethal injection. We can affirm the human dignity of all patients by offering them the compassion of telling them they are loved and that their lives are worthwhile. We cannot affirm their worth by telling people they might be better off dead.
Instead, we should be offering people with terminal illness the very best end-of-life care, so they have no need to fear. The drive for euthanasia is constantly referenced to people having witnessed or heard of bad death, but what they really saw or heard about was their loved ones receiving bad care.
We should not abandon people who are sad or distressed or in pain to assisted suicide by a lethal drug. They have a right to good care. The overwhelming number of people in these circumstances want to spend their last days at home, not in a hospital. This is the hard policymaking that governments should focus on – not pretending Australia’s constitution does not exist.
If Labor and the Greens really want change, they should at least be consistent and seek to make the ACT a state. Or, for all intents and purposes, this Labor/Greens government is only interested in offering people lethal injections.
- Bev Cains is president of the ACT Right to Life Association.