Australian bill would allow legalization of assisted suicide, euthanasia in territories

Euthanasia Credit: Photo by RODNAE Productions / Pexels

Lawmakers in the Australian Parliament have proposed a bill to allow two of Australia’s ten territories to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, following the legalization of the practices in all six Australian states despite vocal Catholic opposition.

In May Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney had criticized a successful legalization effort in New South Wales using a phrase of Pope Francis: “We must redouble our efforts to care for those who are victims of the ‘throwaway culture’ and instead rebuild a culture of life and love…”

Fisher’s previous criticisms of legal assisted suicide noted the prevalence of elder abuse and the “alarming rates of suicide among the vulnerable.” He also noted his own “pain and humiliation” of his severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which paralyzed him from the neck down and put him in terrible pain and total dependency on others for five months.

Australia has six states and ten territories, though the lawmaking abilities of the latter can be restricted by the federal parliament. If the proposed bill passes, the legislation would allow the legislatures of the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, which its backers characterize as “assisted dying.” Fewer than 1 million of Australia’s 26 million people live in the two territories, the Associated Press reports. 

Australian Labor Party MP Alicia Payne, who represents Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory, co-sponsored the private members’ bill. For Payne, the bill was urgent. She said euthanasia for the terminally ill is an “incredibly important debate that we are not allowed to have simply because of where we live,” the Associated Press reports.

The Restoring Territory Rights Bill 2022 could see a vote in Australia’s lower house as soon as this week, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. 

Another co-sponsor, Labor MP Luke Gosling, who holds a seat from Darwin in the Northern Territories, expects successful passage of the bill in the lower house. However, he foresees more opposition in the Senate, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Northern Territory Sen. Jacinta Price of the Liberal-National Coalition Party is the only federal representative from either of the two territories who might not support the legislation. She has said she does not trust the Northern Territory Labor government to consult with indigenous communities. 

“I see them continuing to fail in terms of trying to support the lives of vulnerable Indigenous Australians,” Price said.

The center-left Labor Party government, elected in May, has said its lawmakers may vote their conscience on the bill. The Liberal Party, now in the opposition, has allowed conscience votes on previous euthanasia and assisted suicide legislation.

Labor Party members from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association are believed to be the most likely foes of the bill within the ruling government party, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. 

Labor Sen. Deborah O’Neill said she would consider the legislation on its merits but said she stood by her 2018 position that “assisted suicide cannot ... be safely legislated.”

In 1995, the Australian Capital Territory was the first place in the world to legalize voluntary assisted suicide, leading to four deaths by suicide. In 1997, MP Kevin Andrews introduced a bill that successfully barred the territories from legislating on assisted suicide. In 2018, a bill to repeal the 1997 measure failed to pass by two votes.

In June 2019, Victoria became the first state to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. In May 2022, New South Wales became the sixth and final Australian state to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Efforts to amend the state’s legislation to accommodate objections to facilitating suicide failed. The legislation forces health care and elder care organizations with religious objections to allow the practice on their premises.

In May, Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay lamented the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in New South Wales, calling it “a completely unacceptable solution to the problem of suffering.”

“A genuinely human society is not how we decide to eliminate those who suffer, but how we care for them,” Randazzo said. “We should be considering and caring for the rights of all citizens to be well, to have the care they need, and not lost to the margins.”

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