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Curtailing our right to know about the right to die with dignity

By Fiona Stewart - posted Thursday, 19 May 2005

If the new Spanish film The Sea Inside teaches us anything, it is that no amount of law and legislation can prevent a person who wants to die from devising the ways and means to take their own life.

Whether it be laws such as the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Act (pdf file 14KB), which promoted choice, or the Suicide Related Materials Offences Amendment to the Crimes Act now before the Senate, which takes choice away, laws can be avoided. The Sea Inside provides remarkable insight into why and how.

The life and death of lead character and real-life person, Ramon Sampedro, has long been a cause celebre in Spain. Paralysed from the neck down from a diving accident at 26, Sampedro spent his next 28 years as, in his words, a head attached to a corpse.


Deeply resentful of being forced to live a life that he defined as having little quality, Sampedro repeatedly petitioned the Spanish and European courts. Repeatedly, Sampedro was denied permission to ask for assistance to die, a request he believed he had the right to make. The law disagreed.

Most people believe in death with dignity. In this, Sampedro was not exceptional. At the end of the day it is of little importance that he was not terminally ill. Rather, what mattered to him was that his life had so little dignity, that death was a preferable option.

And on this latter point, Sampedro still cannot be singled out. For he was neither the first - nor shall he be the last - person to take matters into his own hands when the law fails.

It seems important to point out that even if other states had followed the Northern Territory's lead and had legislated for voluntary euthanasia, a person in Sampedro's situation would never have qualified to use it.

To benefit from the act, you had to be terminally ill. Sampedro's self-determined poor quality of life would not have entered the equation. This raises the question of what's law got to do with it, if such constraints apply? Well very little - as long as you know what to do.

While everyone knows that rope is available and hanging works - one need only look at the national suicide statistics that show hanging as the most common means of suicide for all ages - the real question is, who wants to die by hanging when their time comes? Not I, nor anyone I know.


Rather, what most people who have given any thought to how they might wish to die - the elderly, the sick and those with diminished life quality - say is that control, peace and dignity are what count.

To achieve these, though, we must know our options. And it is this right to the most basic information our "Big Brother" Federal Government led by Justice Minister Chris Ellison is now seeking to take away.

Under the new Crimes Act amendments, it will be illegal to use the telephone, fax, email or internet to find out information about your end-of-life options. This type of government determination of what we can and can't read is nothing short of extraordinary in a free country.

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First published in The Age on May 16, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Fiona Stewart is Director of Realworld Research and Communications and is a consultant to corporations, universities, TAFE and schools in educational futures and e-learning. Fiona Stewart is co-author (with Philip Nitschke) of Killing Me Softly: Voluntary Euthanasia and the Road to the Peaceful Pill.

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