One by one, Australian states legalize euthanasia
Only two of six states still protect life’s sanctity at its end
During the early-morning Zoom call in mid-June, Right to Life Australia’s Vice President Brendan Long excused himself to refill his coffee cup. He had woken up about an hour before our 8 a.m. interview and planned to make the four-minute drive to the Australian Parliament House in Canberra later that morning.
On his schedule for the day: a 10 a.m. meeting with Amanda Stoker, a senator from Queensland who Long calls “the terror” of the pro-euthanasia movement, to talk about how Right to Life could help her with her upcoming campaign for reelection. After that, tracking down Patrick Dodson, a “notoriously prickly” senator from Western Australia who is also the pro-life movement’s strongest indigenous voice among Australian lawmakers. Then seeing Daniel Mulino—a friend in Parliament who first brought Long into about the campaign against euthanasia in 2017—to talk about federal strategies for pushing back efforts to legalize the practice.
When we spoke, the lower house in South Australia had just passed a euthanasia bill. A week later, the upper house approved the changes, making South Australia the fourth state in the country to legalize the practice. Tasmania passed a euthanasia bill earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Long plans to attend a July hearing in Queensland about a similar bill under consideration there. New South Wales is also preparing to consider euthanasia legislation.
“Looks like I’ve got a very tough year,” said Long, considering how the push would affect his time on the job. With three bills progressing in three different states, he has a growing pile of legislation to read.
Lawmakers in Australian states have pushed for legal euthanasia for years, but the bills only recently started gaining traction in the legislatures. Now that momentum has picked up in the states, the Australian pro-life movement is fighting to shift public opinion and change federal law to invalidate the state-by-state legalization of euthanasia.
Long attributes his personal opposition to euthanasia to his Catholic faith. In 2020, the Vatican reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to euthanasia and assisted suicide as a “crime against human life.” Catholicism is the most prominent denomination in Australia, with almost 23 percent of the population identifying with the church in 2016. Protestants of various denominations make up another 29.6 percent of the population. But religious opponents to euthanasia in the country face two problems: More and more Australians identify as nonreligious, and many of those who identify with a church don’t align with life-affirming teachings on euthanasia. Data from the Australian Election Study showed that just less than 35 percent of Australians in 2016 affiliated with no religion. By 2019, that had risen to 41 percent. Meanwhile, a 2020 poll found that 68 percent of Catholics and 79 percent of Anglicans in Queensland supported euthanasia.
The state of Victoria was the first to legalize the practice in 2017. Euthanasia advocates attributed the law’s passage to the support of Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews. As a Catholic, Andrews ideologically opposed the idea of assisted suicide until he watched his own father die of cancer in 2016. He called the experience “difficult and taxing,” although the way his father went, he said, “would be described at a textbook level as a good death.” That increased his concern for others: He realized many dying Australians could be in even more pain.
When the Victoria legislation first took effect in June 2019, Andrews predicted 12 people would die under the new law—which he called “a conservative model—in the first year, followed by 100-150 annually in subsequent years. But the actual numbers far exceeded his expectations: Between June 2019 and December 2020, 224 people died of euthanasia in Victoria, according to the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board. Euthanasia laws are set to take effect in Western Australia, Tasmania, and South Australia in the next two years.
This year, euthanasia advocates are continuing their push in Queensland and New South Wales, the only remaining states that have not yet legalized the practice. Long expects the Queensland bill to pass, but he hopes that New South Wales will put up some opposition. “They’re all surfing the wave of what they see as public opinion in support of [euthanasia],” said Long. “They believe momentum is building for change.”
Among lawmakers, the euthanasia bills get support on two sides. Politicians on the left see the legislation as a social reform, and libertarians on the right support the individual freedom to end one’s life. Long observed that many of the supporters are often younger, sometimes conservative, and sometimes not affiliated with one of the major parties.
Polling also suggests that the general public largely supports the practice. A 2017 poll found that 73 percent of Australians answered yes to the question, “If someone with a terminal illness who is experiencing unbelievable suffering asks to die, should a doctor be allowed to assist them to die?” But Long argued people tend to show more uncertainty about euthanasia when the questions become more complicated. He referenced another unpublished poll conducted in 2017 that showed support for euthanasia dropped to 50 percent when the survey noted the potential risks for disabled and elderly people.
“The big challenge is not to fight every piece of legislation but to change the perception of everyday people—change the perception that everyone is dying in pain,” said Long. “Most Australians get very good medical care at the end of their lives, so they’re not in pain.”
Many doctors in Australia seem to agree with Long’s position. According to the newspaper The West Australian, only two health professionals signed up for the training required to administer life-ending drugs to qualified patients in Western Australia. Since participation in the state’s program is voluntary, doctors and nurses who object to euthanasia won’t be forced to participate. Long said most doctors he’s talked to want to have nothing to do with these programs. “Most doctors tell me that this can never be made safe,” he said, referring to the way euthanasia schemes threaten the vulnerable.
Even if euthanasia ultimately becomes legal in all six states, Long hopes new regulations from the federal government will help shut it down. He and other pro-lifers in Australia are pushing the Therapeutic Goods Administration (Australia’s version of the Food and Drug Administration) to make it harder to import the drugs used for euthanasia in the country. But for now, they’ve met a stalemate because the current Australian health minister won’t budge on the issue.
The federal government has put its foot down on some matters related to the push for euthanasia. The premier of Queensland wrote to Australia’s prime minister asking him to amend federal laws that prevent physicians from discussing euthanasia over phone or video appointments. The federal government earlier this month said it would not change the law. If that safeguard hadn’t been in place, Long explained via email that “the prescription for the poison pill or the lethal injection could have been done in a five-minute phone call.”
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