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Is a life sentence justified for assisted dying?

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Tuesday, 24 November 2015


In 1997, Kevin Andrews succeeded in pushing a private member's bill through Federal Parliament. It overturned the first legislation permitting assisted suicide in Australia, enacted in the Northern Territory.

Since then, not only does assisting someone to commit suicide remain a serious crime in all States, it is also a crime in the Territories. Three states have life imprisonment as the maximum penalty, while in others the maximum penalty varies from 5 to 25 years.

This is extraordinarily cruel. The denial of the right to die at a time of our choosing can result in a lingering, painful death. It is also at odds with the fact that we have both a fundamental and legal right to choose whether we wish to continue living.

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It's important to state this clearly, because people forget suicide was once illegal and failed attempts often led to prosecution.

In Medieval England, suicides were denied a Christian burial. Instead, they were carried to a crossroads in the dead of night and dumped in a pit, a wooden stake hammered through the body to pin it in place.

But punishment did not end with death. The deceased's family's belongings were handed to the Crown. This remained the case until 1822. The suicide of an adult male could reduce his survivors to pauperism.

From the middle of the 18th century there was a softening of public attitudes towards suicide. While it is obviously still an occasion for sadness, there is also a recognition that people do not belong to their families or to the government. An individual may have good reasons to take his or her own life.

But there is a catch. The law says we are only permitted to die by our own hand, without assistance. Indeed, in three states, reasonable force can still be used to stop a person from committing suicide. And if we are too weak or incapacitated to end our lives ourselves, we are condemned to suffer until nature takes its course. It is a serious offence for anyone to either help us die – or even to tell us how to do it for ourselves.

One of the consequences of this is that it can compel people to end their lives sooner than they would like. Understandably, people prefer to avoid the risk that they will become incapable of committing suicide themselves.

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There is no better marker of individual freedom than the ability to decide what to do with our own body. If the law prevents us from making free choices about it, then we are not really free at all; our bodies belong to the State.

Legalisation of assisted suicide is long overdue in Australia. Opinion polls show more than 80% of Australians are in favour, across all political parties. It is high time governments accepted that on this deeply personal matter, their intrusion is not warranted.

Despite what some people think, this is not about bumping off granny to inherit the house. Assisted suicide is simply helping someone to do something that they would do for themselves, if they were not so ill or feeble. The absolutely essential element is voluntary consent, which is emphatically not merely implied consent or acquiescence.

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This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review.



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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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