Ingeborg van Teeseling

Dead end: Australia’s complicated history with euthanasia

Despite the majority of Australians being in favour, a legal solution to euthanasia still evades us. Are our loved ones mere victims of bureaucracy, or is there something else at play?


In a few short weeks, the NSW Parliament will debate a new Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill. The wording of this proposed law has been nutted out over the last year-and-a-half, by a cross-party parliamentary working group consisting of the Coalition, Labour, the Greens and Independent Alex Greenwich. When it has been discussed, probably at length, it will go to a conscience vote on the floor, giving MPs the opportunity to follow their principles, not their party line. In front of them is a proposal to give people over the age of 25, who are in severe pain or physically incapacitated and will likely die within a year, the right to end their suffering. Before they can do that, at least three doctors have to be involved: their GP, a specialist and a psychologist or psychiatrist. There will be a right for close relatives to challenge the person’s decision in court, a 48-hour cooling-off period, and if possible, the patient will have to self-administer the lethal drug. Only if they are not physically able, a doctor or another outsider be allowed to help them. This is the difference between assisted dying, where the patient is in charge, and euthanasia, where the doctor does the deed.

Supporting the proposal are people like Anne Gabrielidis, who has terminal motor neurone disease and is looking at a horrible death. She started a petition in May when the draft Bill was announced. At the moment, there are more than 95,000 signatures backing her request to not let her stay ‘trapped in a dying body’. It also seems that 80% of Australians and up to 70% of Catholics and Anglicans support some form of euthanasia law, especially in the case of people with a terminal illness. Obviously, there are also groups and individuals who are very much opposed to any law that allows patients the choice to end their lives. The Australian Medical Association is against euthanasia, for instance, although the former head of the AMA, neurosurgeon Brian Owler, is now in favour, after the ‘terrible death’ of his father. Polls say that their members are overwhelmingly in favour: 60% of doctors and 80% of nurses support the Bill.5 Politicians differ in opinion too. Luke Foley, the leader of the Opposition, is against, and Mike Baird was anti too, but we don’t know how our Gladys thinks about the issue. Apparently, most churches and some states are ‘braced for their biggest battle yet’ against euthanasia, and they are lobbying their members for a grassroots campaign. Last year, Andrew Denton controversially blamed ‘a subterranean force of Catholic politicians and businessmen’, a type of ‘God squad’, for the fact that euthanasia or assisted dying still has not been put into law anywhere in Australia. According to the journalist, it is people like Liberal Kevin Andrews and Labor’s Tony Burke who have been tirelessly working to stop these kinds of laws. Denton is on a quest to change that, inspired by the death of his father, something he described as akin to ‘waterboarding’.


Last year, Andrew Denton controversially blamed ‘a subterranean force of Catholic politicians and businessmen’, a type of ‘God squad’, for the fact that euthanasia or assisted dying still has not been put into law anywhere in Australia.


These discussions, legal and otherwise, have a long history in Australia. In fact, longer than almost anywhere in the world. Although The Netherlands already officially condoned euthanasia from the late 1970s and the American state of Oregan passed a Death with Dignity Act in 1994, it was the Northern Territory that became the first jurisdiction in the world to allow a doctor to end the life of a terminally ill patient at his or her request. In May 1995, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was passed by the NT Parliament, which entered into force on 1 July 1996. From the start, there were furious forces against the law. A year later, a repeal bill was brought but defeated, and this left a historic moment for patients’ choice. The first person to die at his request was Bob Dent, a Darwin carpenter who was suffering from terminal prostate cancer. The doctor sticking his neck out to help was Philip Nitschke, then, as now, an advocate of euthanasia and the only one willing to put his reputation and licence to practice medicine elsewhere in Australia on the line. After Dent, three more people died and two others were given the approval to go ahead. But then the federal government intervened, by passing the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997. It removed the power of all the territories (the ACT, Norfolk Island and the NT) to legalise euthanasia, ever. This was possible because the territories are not, like the states, sovereign entities, but have been granted their legislative power by the federal parliament. And what can be granted, can also be taken away, which happened when the NT laws was nullified by the Federal one. The MP introducing the bill was Kevin Andrews.

In the early 2000s, screenwriter Reg Cribb wrote a play based on the case of Broken Hill taxi driver Max Bell, who had tried, and failed, to get euthanasia in the NT during 1997. He was one of the people who was a victim of the nullification and he died a painful and protracted death back in NSW a few months later. Cribb’s play won the 2003 WA Premier and Queensland Premier Awards and was turned into a film, Last Cab to Darwin, with Michael Caton, Jacki Weaver and Ningali Lawford. The 2000s, the decade that Cribb tackled this issue, was a particularly partisan period for the euthanasia debate. In 2005, the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Materials Offences) Act came into law, making it illegal for people to ‘use a carriage service for suicide related material’ or ‘posses, control, produce, supply or obtain suicide related material for use’. This Act, which is still in force, made it difficult for organisations like Death with Dignity and Philip Nitschke’s Exit International to educate people about euthanasia. Nitschke was under fire a lot during this time, but even normal citizens bore the brunt of the legal indecision. In 2005 a nurse was convicted of manslaughter after she helped her terminally ill father die. In 2008, two women who provided the drug Nembutal to a friend were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Despite the fact that assisted dying and euthanasia are and have been part of the Australian discussion for many, many years, state parliaments have so far not been able to pass any laws. In November last year, the Death with Dignity Bill came in front of the South Australian assembly for the 15th time, but was defeated by one vote. In 2013, a Bill in front of the Tasmanian parliament was defeated 13-11, and another one, the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2016 suffered the same fate last May. In Victoria, the final report by an advisory panel went to the Health Minister a few days ago and a conscience vote is expected by the end of the year. But already, there have been forceful campaigns against, especially Labor MPs who are in favour of the law. Right to Life, that talks about euthanasia as ‘patient killing’, has vowed to ‘take the fight to the enemy’, while warning that ‘the gloves are off’.

It remains to be seen what will happen in NSW. I am biased, of course, but there is one prediction I would like to make: when 80% of the citizens of a country desires something, sooner or later it will happen.

Let’s hope, for all of us, that it is sooner rather than later.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

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