Since the overturning of the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI) in 1997 by Kevin Andrew’s Private Member’s Bill in the Australian Parliament, Australia’s seriously ill and elderly people have been stripped of an elementary human right: the right to die peacefully and with dignity at a time and place of their own choosing.
The Northern Territory Parliament enacted ROTI on July 1, 1996 and it was overturned on March 25, 1997. The death of ROTI in 1997, was, so to speak, the birth of Exit International. In the same year, 1997, Dr Philip Nitschke, the first doctor in the world to administer legal, voluntary euthanasia, founded Exit International in response to the overturning of ROTI.
Exit International is unique world-wide in that it provides members with practical information about end-of-life options. Exit’s mission statement, that every rational adult should have the right to a dignified, peaceful and reliable death at a time and place of one’s choosing, immediately attracted thousands of like-minded members.
As a Chapter Co-ordinator of Exit I am constantly confronted with the hardship and desperation of many members who, seriously or terminally ill, do not have the legal right in Australia to die peacefully, with dignity and at a time of their own choosing.
It is not enough to have good, reliable information about the options for self deliverance. Many other issues must be taken into consideration, not least the uncertainty about the legal ramifications for loved ones if they want to be present at the time of self deliverance. Also the fact that family members may or may not approve of the decision, however rational it may be, make it a difficult and often very lonely decision to make.
Those seriously or terminally ill who have decided to end their life at a time of their own choosing do not feel that they have an obligation to continue living under all circumstances. When their physical suffering is all consuming, when hardship, absence of quality of life and sadness is the rule and not the exception in their daily life, then it is absolutely inhumane to deny them a dignified and peaceful death of their own choosing.
The Right to Life movement maintains that the right to life is an elementary human right and needs to be protected. I heartily agree, as do the supporters of voluntary euthanasia, but in their opposition to self deliverance the Right to Life movement equates the right to life with the obligation to life. Obligations to life, even influenced by cultural, ethical, political or religious upbringing, needs to been seen in the context of being voluntary.
To make it clear, in a democratic society everyone has the right to join a political party, choose or change a religion, and so on, but no one has the right to force an individual to do so.
And likewise the decision, for example, to join a political party or choose a certain religion is a democratic right but it is not an obligation one has to follow. In this context the right to life is undoubtedly a human right, but it is not an obligation and certainly not for those whose life contains unbearable suffering and wishes to end their life.
This is obviously not a view the Right to Life movement shares or supports, nor did the Howard government. Even though suicide is not a crime in Australia the Howard government introduced legislation which criminalises assisted suicide, meaning that the seriously or terminally ill have to rely on themselves to find reliable and peaceful options for self deliverance. In the majority of cases this is an unbelievably difficult, if not impossible task, often ending with disastrous consequences.
The recently published Peaceful Pill Handbook by Philip Nitschke, which provides the reader with a range of practical and useful strategies to end their life peacefully and with dignity, had only few weeks on book store shelves before it was totally banned in Australia. This was applauded by the Right to Life movement, and criticised by those who saw it as a blow for freedom of speech and democracy in Australia.
The banning of the Peaceful Pill Handbook signals not only further de-democratisation in Australia; it also documents clearly that suicide, although legal, is a rhetorical freedom if there is no access to information on how to accomplish a peaceful death.