End-of-life bill requires far greater scrutiny

Originally published in The Examiner 22 September (Available here)

Most of us can imagine crimes which in the abstract are deserving of the death penalty.

Yet we have wisely abolished the death penalty because as a community we believe in the inherent value of human life and that the state should not have the power or authority to dispense with the life of any of its citizenry. Once you give the state such power, where do you draw the line?

Coupled with this fundamental principle is the pragmatic real-life experience that even with the best justice system in the world (which we do enjoy in Australia) errors are nevertheless and regrettably made.

Doubts about the appropriateness of previous convictions continually arise.

It is all too late when the convicted person is no longer with us because of the death penalty. These same considerations of principle and pragmatism need to be embraced by our Tasmanian legislators as they consider the Bill before the Parliament which seeks to provide state sanction for suicide or more euphemistically described as "end-of-life choices".

It's human nature to want to be the master of your own destiny. As it is human nature to seek as pleasant a death as possible.

We all agree with that in principle.

We would be silly if we didn't.

Yet there are two fundamental key issues.

Can state-sanctioned suicide be safely legislated? And in any event, is it right and possible to so legislate?

The wise truism "the devil is in the detail" is sage counsel and exceptionally apt when considering whether the state ought to allow the taking of another human life.

Another maxim worthy of adoption is that "tough cases always make for bad law".

When a former distinguished Chief Justice of our Tasmanian Supreme Court, the Hon Bill Cox AC, persuasively exposes the dangers of this latest version of the proposal along with the Australian Medical Association, which notes the confusing nature and contradictory aspects of it, we can't glibly dismiss opposition to this Bill as some have sought to do to avoid discussing the details.

And without forming a judgement on the principles of the proposal, the state government has raised a litany of technical issues with the legislation.

Given the host of issues - technical, legal, medical, ethical - all in a community climate of ever-increasing elder abuse and suicide, we would be well served to have the proposal fully considered by a qualified panel to consider and proffer advice on the detail.

Having been so self-satisfied by his Bill, the mover told the community "there is nothing an inquiry could improve on...".

The mover is now in the unfortunate position of having to propose his own amendments to at least five separate clauses and inserting a new section dealing with "objectives and principles".

One may have thought that when dealing with life-and-death issues the matter of objectives and principles may have been a first-order issue and settled before drafting the Bill and not as an afterthought.

Yet that is what is happening.

Most of us won't go past the euphemistic title of the Bill "End-of-Life Choices".

No set of choices on offer by the way - just an earlier death. And it's not only for the terminally ill in the latter stages of their life, as most think because that is what we are continually being told. The detail tells a very different and chilling story.

Section 5(1) tells us the "relevant medical condition" means a disease, illness, injury or medical condition that is advanced, incurable and irreversible and is expected to cause the death of the person. Note the condition needs only to be "expected" to cause death.

We expect many things in life which ultimately don't happen. Further, despite having the best medical system in the world, incorrect diagnoses and treatments occur.

Section 5(2) tells us a condition is "incurable and irreversible" if there is no reasonable available treatment that is acceptable to the person and that can cure or reverse the condition. So, no objective assessment by a panel of qualified medical practitioners, just the patient's subjective assessment that the treatment is not acceptable.

There is many an incurable condition which may be expected to lead to death of which we can think, e.g. diabetes and heart disease. Section 6 refers to "intolerable" suffering, but Section 13 tells us this is to be determined not by medical experts but by the opinion of the person.

And the "intolerable" aspect of it can be simply the "anticipation of the suffering" as per Section 13(b)(ii). Thankfully there is a word limit imposed by the editor, but these few examples highlight how essential it is for this Bill to be fully and professionally examined. After all, life-and-death are serious topics - worthy of exceptionally careful scrutiny especially for parliamentarians seeking to legislate in this area.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

Read more


136 Davey Street
Hobart  TAS  7001
(primary office)

(03) 6224 3707

48 Cecilia Street
St Helens  TAS  7215
(satellite office)

(03) 6376 1972