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Death and the rule of law

OPINION

I presume that the Rule of Law is to lawyers somewhat akin to the Hippocratic oath to doctors – however, I hope it is regarded as more sacrosanct.

Early Hippocratic oaths prohibit surgery and women entering the profession.

Two years ago, I wrote to the Rule of Law Institute of Australia pointing out that it appears laws covering assisted suicide, murder and homicide are being broken with immunity and asking them to examine the matter and respond.

They seemed to be the right organisation to go to.

The very pinnacle of the Rule of Law Pyramid on their website states “Equality before the law.” I took that to mean the law must be applied equally to all – no individual or section of society should be immune from its application. I was surprised by the one-line response I received. It read: “The Institute is fully stretched at the moment and I am afraid we cannot take up the issue of euthanasia.”

I did not ask the institute to take up the issue of euthanasia. My submission was that there is clear evidence of intentional hastening of the death of very ill patients occurring in Australia today, that the practice is inequitable, unregulated and potentially dangerous yet is endorsed at the highest levels of officialdom.

In support I presented these quotes from a former Prime Minister and a former President of the Australian Medical Association explicitly endorsing the status quo as acceptable practice that should be allowed to continue. Dr Brendan Nelson, who was then president of the Australian Medical Association in 1995, acknowledged and supported doctors intentionally hastening death.

Dr Nelson, in a newspaper article published in the Sunday Territorian, on May 21,1995 said: “Technically it would be illegal, but somebody would have to report it and register a complaint.”

“Now if you do your job properly there’s no way the family’s going to complain”. He said the police would not lay charges if the doctor could prove he had the family’s backing and had sought the proper expert advice.

To add to this sentiment then Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013 agreed with his radio interviewer – Neil Mitchell ‘Talk Back’ Radio 3AW in September of that year – that pain relief was often given with the intention of speeding death.

Mr Abbott said: “Quite possibly you’re right, Neil, and when was the last time any doctor or anyone was prosecuted for something like that? I think the situation that we’ve got at the moment is a perfectly acceptable one.”

That the Prime Minister and the head of the AMA (and also later a serving federal Conservative Minister) say doctors intentionally kill terminally ill patients, acknowledging that it is breaking the law and that it is perfectly acceptable, should be of concern.

The extent of terminal sedation in Australia is unknown. No guidelines exist to regulate it and there is no scrutiny. Who would know if the doctrine of double effect is shielding abuse or cover up?

If the rule of law is indeed the foundation of our system of justice, I would hope that members of the Queensland Law Society take a keen interest in defending it.

Marshall Perron was Chief Minister of the Northern Territory from 1998 to 1995. An advocate for voluntary euthanasia, he introduced a Bill which became the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995.

This article first appeared on page 23 of the October 2019 edition of Proctor.

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