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Still no easy legal way to go

By Philip Nitschke - posted Monday, 31 July 2006

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the world’s first Voluntary Euthanasia (VE) law the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act in the Northern Territory.

On July 1, 1996 it became lawful for the first time anywhere in the world for a terminally ill person to get help from their doctor to die. Four of my patients used this ROTI Act and all considered themselves lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

As history now has it, this innovative, progressive, civilised piece of legislation lasted only eight months before being cut short by the Kevin Andrews Bill in Federal Parliament. I say “cut short” because the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act has never been rescinded.


Rather, the principal aim of the Federal Euthanasia Laws Bill (the formal title of the Andrew's Private Members Bill) was to prevent the Northern Territory from ever implementing such a law.

When the Aboriginal Member for Arnhem Wes Lanhupuy cast the deciding vote that night ten years ago, he said, “This is the most difficult Bill that I have ever had to examine … Based on such considerations, I believe a person should have the right to be able to determine what they want …” little could he have known how this right would be trammelled by those whose job it is to know better.

It didn’t take long back then for we Territorians to learn that because we are a territory, not a state, the god-botherers in Canberra would get the better of us.

It is with a considerable sense of irony, then, that in this anniversary month the Martin Labor Government has chosen to adopt a head-in-the-sand approach to this significant moment in history.

So abhorrent is the idea of voluntary euthanasia to the current Northern Territory Government that the speaker this week has banished an historical ROTI Act display from the main hall of Parliament House.

To the devoutly religious, such a display has been deemed “offensive” and “controversial”.


In forbidding public display of the Remonstrance, the legal petition addressed to Federal Parliament and signed by then Members of the NT Assembly, Bob Dent’s application to use the ROTI Act (Bob Dent was the first man in the world to receive a legal, lethal, voluntary injection) and several significant and unseen documents and photographs from the time, God has been brought well and truly into Darwin’s house of the people. And this, according to the last census, in the least religious jurisdiction in the country.

In doing so, the NT Speaker has joined a Christian chorus in denouncing much of what is condoned within our broader secular community.

Long before the ROTI Bill was put forward by Marshall Perron in Darwin in the mid-1990s, community support for voluntary euthanasia was steady at around 75 per cent. In 2006, our belief in the right of a terminally ill person to be able to get lawful assistance to die with dignity remains.

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First published in Sydney Morning Herald on July 20, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Philip Nitschke is director of EXIT(Australia). He assisted four patients to die under the short lived NT voluntary euthanasia legislation. Today, he is director of Exit International.

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All articles by Philip Nitschke
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