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New law on suicide attacks freedom

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 9 January 2006

While many in our community are alarmed by the incursions of freedoms and liberties being made by the Howard Government’s new anti-terror laws, last Friday will heralded the beginning of new and unprecedented attack on the freedoms and rights of Australians.

Today, the federal Suicide Related Material Offences Act comes into force. Under this new law it is an offence to use the Internet or email, “to access, transmit or make available material that counsels or incites suicide”. And if an individual possesses, produces or supplies such material, with intent to make it available on the Internet, then they are also guilty of a criminal offence. The fines for both offences are up to $110,000 for individuals and $500,000 for organisations. And providing advice over the phone that counsels or incites suicide is now an offence.

Why introduce this law? Because the Howard Government, and the ALP which supported the passage of this bill through the Parliament, want to stamp out Internet chat rooms and other forms of information dissemination in cyberspace that examine methods of suicide.


Yet this law is likely to criminalise the conduct of thousands of humane and compassionate Australians. Consider this case. A person, who is suffering from terminal cancer and in pain, wants to end their own life. In times gone by they may have talked to their doctor on the phone about their medication. But not any more. Under this new law any people who use the phone to discuss the practicalities of ending their life with dignity could be landed with a court appearance and a $110,000 fine.

Or let’s say there are discussion forums on websites that are utilised by sufferers of terminal illnesses, all of whom are members of a right to die group and all of whom are sick and elderly. These people will now be facing criminal charges if they discuss methods of death with dignity, or support another discussant who is contemplating ending their life because the pain they are in is unbearable and their quality of life is so thoroughly extinguished.

One final example will suffice to illustrate the unfairness of this new law. A person might return from a trip to Oregon in the US or the Netherlands, two jurisdictions where strictly regulated assisted suicide is permitted. If an individual uses the Internet phone, fax or to discuss practices in Oregon or the Netherlands with a fellow activist, friend, doctor, or loved one, then that individual will be made a criminal by this new law.

The suicide related offences law allows for “public discussion or debate” about euthanasia or suicide and doesn’t stop those who advocate reform of the law in this area from using the Internet. But even here, those who want to argue that defence may find themselves in muddy waters. If the advocacy includes discussion about methods of euthanasia, then the advocate will be caught by the law.

Just as federal politicians are telling the community that it’s necessary to sacrifice freedoms and liberties because of the supposed threat of terrorism in Australia, so they are justifying the suicide offences law on the same basis.

When Attorney-General Philip Ruddock introduced the suicide offences law into Parliament earlier this year he cited an ABC Online report on a trend in Japan towards strangers arranging suicide pacts over Internet suicide chat rooms. According to that report, said Mr Ruddock, over a three-month period in late 2004 at least 35 people made suicide pacts online.


Various other MPs who spoke on the suicide offences law in the federal Parliament used the Japanese case and focused on the danger to young people of allowing discussions about methods of suicide on line.

But what these politicians failed to recognise, deliberately no doubt in the case of those MPs who are opposed to voluntary euthanasia, is that there is a world of difference between, on the one hand, the conduct of an individual or group that is actively encouraging suicide by young people or those suffering with mental illness or who are vulnerable in some way, and, on the other, the assistance rendered by health professionals or euthanasia experts to patients who seek their guidance.

The new suicide offences law is an attack on freedom of communication. It is making criminals out of those thousands of Australians who genuinely believe that Dying with Dignity is a fundamental human right of us all.

On the January 6, 2006 another blow to freedom in our democracy was struck.

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First published in The Canberra Times on January 6, 2006.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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