ACT News

Health law expert Ben White puts forward euthanasia proposal

Brisbane euthanasia expert Ben White has pointed to a way forward for Canberra in the euthanasia debate, in which the director of public prosecutions could choose not to prosecute in euthanasia cases.

Professor White pointed to a similar regime in Britain where the director of public prosecutions was told by the House of Lords to set out when he would and wouldn't prosecute in cases of assisted suicide.

The Commonwealth doesn't allow the territories to legalise euthanasia, but Labor Assembly member Mary Porter is pursuing the issue nevertheless. She held a forum on the topic on Thursday, plans to release a research paper in the coming weeks, and will hold a wider public forum later in the year.

Professor White, the director of the health law research centre at the Queensland University of Technology, has written a set of guidelines that could be used by a director of public prosecutions when deciding whether or not to prosecute someone for assisting with suicide or carrying out voluntary euthanasia.

Ms Porter said she would explore options other than legislation in her research paper.

Professor White and colleague Lindy Willmott spoke at Thursday's forum. Professor Willmot said there had been about 40 attempts over the past two decades to make euthanasia laws, in every state and territory except Queensland, with only one success. The Northern Territory law in 1995 that allowed assisted suicide, but was quickly overturned by the Commonwealth.

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Overseas, Switzerland had the least regulated system, simply making it illegal to assist suicide if you do so with selfish motives.

The Swiss scheme received some support yesterday, Australia 21's Bob Douglas saying the less legislation on the process, the better. Jeanne Arthur from Dying with Dignity ACT also supported the Swiss model.

Given the inability of the ACT to legislate, Ms Arthur's group is hoping to persuade the Victorian branch of her organisation to pursue a challenge, arguing that the criminal law banning euthanasia contravenes human rights law.

Former Catholic priest Paul Collins said it was impossible for legislation to deal with the wide range of people's moral and ethical views, making minimal legislation as in Switzerland preferable.

But Professor Willmott said she was uncomfortable with the Swiss laws, where someone could receive assistance to die without even having an illness, and without being informed about medical choices, increasing the potential for vulnerable people to be targeted.

Asked whether euthanasia regimes had been misused overseas, Professor White said a 2012 study had looked at whether men or women were dying more often and at the split between old and young, and people from different socio-economic backgrounds. It found no evidence to support concerns that legalising euthanasia would target the vulnerable. But a more recent report from Switzerland had found mixed results, with women more likely to die under the regime than men, but better educated people also more likely to use the scheme.

Ms Porter said the forum agreed this was the right time to discuss voluntary euthanasia and people must be allowed to speak freely on the topic.

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