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Legalised voluntary euthanasia - taking the power of life and death away from doctors

By Kathy Sullivan - posted Monday, 3 June 2002

In 1997 I voted against the Andrews Bill in the House of Representatives. The eventual passage of that Bill by the Commonwealth Parliament had the effect of discontinuing the availability of euthanasia under the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Before the Andrews Bill was proposed, I did not have a firm opinion about whether euthanasia should be legal.

Unexpectedly confronted with having to vote on this extremely contentious subject, I studied every opinion that I could get my hands on to try to reach an objective decision. In the event, they were no help to me. Both pro- and anti- euthanasia advocates can put forward persuasive moral justifications for their opposing cases. I had to respect the sincerity of both groups of protagonists. However, there is no common ground between them, and a judgment of which one is morally superior is a matter of subjective opinion.

What each group of advocates does have in common is a passionate conviction in the absolute superiority of their (diametrically opposed) beliefs.


In the end I was persuaded to vote pro-euthanasia by one particular group. Doctors.

Before the debate got underway in the House of Representatives, many people directly expressed their views to MPs, including doctors from both "camps".

Some (few) doctors are absolutely opposed to actively terminating anyone’s life under any circumstances. Whether or not you agree with them, you have to acknowledge their moral consistency.

Some doctors admit to ending the life of a suffering patient, but say they wish they didn’t have to fear the personal risks they run as a consequence of breaking the laws which unambiguously prohibit their humanitarian intentions.

Finally there were the doctors who urged me to vote anti-euthanasia, saying: "Don’t worry about it. When the time comes, it is taken care of." They would then proceed to describe how patients are killed through a deliberate drug overdose administered by a doctor or nurse. What they were actually saying to me was that euthanasia is OK provided you leave it to the medical profession acting illegally. They didn’t want any type of change to the law, certainly not one which would provide people with a legal entitlement to personal involvement in any deliberate decision to end their lives.

"Just leave it to us," these doctors counselled me. Far from reassuring me, they alarmed me - mightily. Some of these very doctors then voted in the national Parliament to maintain the absolute illegality of what I was assured by them is a quite common (and accepted) medical practice.


I had to wonder "what if a doctor took this decision about my life? Or my mother’s life? Is that what I want to support?". The fact is I felt a deep revulsion at what they were saying. I was repelled both by the hypocrisy of this - that is, the present - practice, as well as by its very practitioners asserting for themselves a right to decide between life and death whilst simultaneously denying any right of participation in that decision by the very person whose life is at stake.

When I voted against the Andrews Bill I voted to empower patients, not doctors.

Everyone acknowledges that euthanasia is widely practiced - clandestinely. It is also accepted that this is not going to change.

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This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on June 1, 2002.

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About the Author

Kathy Sullivan is the former federal Liberal Member for Moncrieff in Queensland.

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Doctors Reform Society
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