I was kept waiting for several minutes in the hall. The person I had come to Wollongong to visit had asked her husband to explain to me that this was so she could "make herself
presentable". Eventually I was ushered into the dimly lit room where Sarah, lying on a bed propped up with multiple pillows, offered me a limp hand and gestured with her eyes for me to sit
She came rapidly to the point.
"I’ve motor neurone disease", she said, "a particularly aggressive form it seems, given that it was only diagnosed six months ago, and now, as you can see, I only have a little
She raised her left arm again, slowly, to demonstrate.
"I know this disease can get very rough, and I want to be ready, prepared, so that if things get too bad, I can end it, and end it myself so that my husband isn’t involved."
Sarah’s story was compelling, but in no way unique. EXIT (Australia) voluntary euthanasia clinics operate in all Australian cities, and currently we have five patients with this
disease. Their anxiety and interest in voluntary euthanasia is prompted by the knowledge that death from motor neurone disease (MND), a disease that progressively robs the patient of all voluntary
muscular control, can indeed be difficult. The patients are all well aware that in the last stages of this disease they may find themselves unable to move their arms or legs, be able to speak, or
even swallow, and they know that they can quickly lose the ability to end their lives without help from others.
Their choice for them is a simple one: acquire the drugs that will provide them with a peaceful death and take them while they still can, or risk being trapped in their body enduring a slow and
inevitable death. The only other possibility, one that most will not even consider, is to ask a loved one to break current law and help them administer a lethal dose, an action that could well
result in the helper’s incarceration for 20 years. Each MND patient attending EXIT clinics sought information on the type or drugs that would give them a reliable and peaceful death,
availability and most importantly, advice on how they could best predict when to take the drugs so that they would not need to involve their partners, children or very close friends.
The sad fact is that it is now five years since the world’s first voluntary euthanasia law, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in the Northern Territory was overturned by the Federal
parliament. Sarah and any other sufferer of motor neurone disease would have qualified to use the NT law and could have been helped to die if and when they chose, instead of having to deal with
the additional stress of having to acquire drugs secretively and of feeling that they have to use them more quickly than they wish, so as not to expose those they love to some serious legal risk.
Since the removal of this innovative Territory law, no significant progress has been made either towards its reinstatement or the introduction of similar legislation into another state.
Across Australia, suicide is a legal act, but "advising, counselling or assisting" can attract the most savage of penalties. In Queensland, for example, the penalty can be life in
prison. This presents something of a paradox. How can it be that to advise someone on an action that is legal, can be considered so illegal as to attract a penalty of 20 years in prison? And the
definitions of what exactly constitutes "advising, counselling or assisting" are well recognised by the legal profession as extremely grey and ambiguous.
Kep Enderby QC, Federal Attorney General in the Whitlam government, outlined the issues in a public presentation in February:
"The concept of "assist" or "help" or "aid" is variously expressed in the different jurisdictions. It can be a very vague concept.
The absurd situation is that anyone who attends and is present while some one commits suicide, even if only with the intention of giving comfort and support to that person, could well be
found guilty of the crime of "assisting" that person to commit suicide; to do something that itself is not a crime, something which, as far as the criminal law is concerned, society
permits. An absurdity if ever there was one.