'We have the right to die'

March 24, 2007

Ten years ago, Australia led the world in voluntary euthanasia legislation. On September 22, 1996, Bob Dent became the first person in the world to receive a legal, lethal, voluntary injection. His peaceful and dignified death occurred under the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) of the Northern Territory.

But it was short lived. On March 27, 1997, Kevin Andrews private member's bill was passed in the Senate, by just two votes, overturning the ROTI Act. Since then, Australia has gone backwards.

One has to go overseas to Switzerland, as Dr John Elliott did recently, to have a physician-assisted death. "It's an abomination", writes Nancy Pullman, "that anyone has to go overseas like that when they're nearly dead. Why can't they have that option in Australia?" Nearly 93% of 33,000 respondents to a Channel 10 poll said the same thing.

Those of us in the voluntary euthanasia movement had fought for 25 years to bring about a law change. Then, in 1996, it suddenly happened in the NT and we were so happy. But it was quickly snatched away from us, and we were devastated.

Dr Philip Nitschke, who had fought so hard for the law change and was involved in four NT deaths, realised it would be another 10 years or longer before any other state in Australia would introduce such a law. He formed a new organisation, VERF (Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation, now called Exit) to explore ways of do-it-yourself self-deliverance.

Why wait for a law? Some of us are now too old to wait, anyway. Why put ourselves in a dependent situation begging medical doctors' permission to die? If we had the means at our disposal we could do it ourselves. I was quick to join, and have been a willing participant in the research and development program, and now I'm in that lucky position of being able to self-deliver when and where I choose, without any assistance from anybody else.

Euthanasia means a good death. Voluntary euthanasia usually means bringing about a "good death" with the help of the medical profession, or with assistance from others. At present, this is not allowed by law. Assisting a suicide is still a crime. The voluntary euthanasia societies have as their aim a change in the law.

Exit, on the other hand, has decided not to wait for a law change. Instead, it is proposing a DIY method of bringing about a good death that does not require any assistance from others. It needs to be reliable, peaceful and dignified. This is perfectly legal. Suicide is not a crime.

Exit meetings are attended by committed members whose average age is 75. The meetings are not advertised. Exit is not about "peddling suicide", as our detractors like to say. On the contrary, those attending our meetings are elderly citizens and often terminally ill. They have already made decisions about their impending departure and are at these meetings for mutual support.

Most of our members belong to both Exit and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. There's still the hope that one state or another will succeed in passing voluntary euthanasia legislation. There's always the chance that one will leave it too late to self-deliver and will then need assistance. That's where the law comes in.

Parliament has made it an offence to discuss end-of-life issues over the phone, on the internet or by fax or email, and has recently banned the Peaceful Pill Handbook in Australia.

Exit is about choice. It provides members with accurate, concise information so that they may make their own end-of-life decisions.

[Abridged from a speech to a March 21 forum about voluntary euthanasia hosted by the Greens and Socialist Alliance in Newcastle. A Freedom Ride, which began on March 25 in Sydney, ended the next day in a "Day of Shame" outside Parliament House, where MPs were presented with 20,000 messages in a condolence book.]

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