A bill to legalize assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia was passed by Victoria's Legislative Assembly on Friday after 26 hours of debate. The bill will now advance to the upper house of the Australian state's parliament, the Legislative Council, where it is expected to pass. If it is signed into law, Victoria would become Australia's first state to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. The bill passed in the Legislative Assembly in a 47-37 vote Oct. 20. Hundreds of amendments were proposed, but none were accepted.
Critics of the bill worry it abandons the vulnerable, among other problems. The Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill is based on similar laws in the U.S. It allows adults who are terminally ill, expected to die within 12 months, and mentally competent to ask their doctor to prescribe a drug that will end their lives, the U.K.-based news site Politics Home reports. Physicians would be allowed to administer a lethal injection only when the patient is physically incapable of doing so.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, of the Australian Labor Party, had introduced the bill. Victoria's coroner told the members of parliament that one terminally ill Victorian was taking their own life every week because of intolerable pain.
Critics of the bill questioned a lack of detail about what lethal drugs will be used. They said there is not a requirement for a psychological assessment to determine whether the patient suffers depression, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reports. They also cited the risk that the elderly will be coerced into committing suicide.
Backers of the bill said it would only affect a small number of people who suffer terminal illnesses. They objected that palliative care cannot deal with all pain. They also claim the bill has among the most stringent safeguards in the world.
Paul Keating, who was Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996 and a member of the Australian Labor Party, lamented the bill's advancement, calling it a “truly sad moment for the whole country.” “What this means is that the civic guidance provided by the state, in our second largest state, is voided when it comes to the protection of our most valuable asset,” Keating said in a statement. “To do or to cause to abrogate the core human instinct to survive and live, for the spirit to hang on against physical deprivations, is to turn one’s back on the compulsion built into the hundreds of thousands of years of our evolution.”
Keating also wrote that “Under Victorian law there will be people whose lives we honour and those we believe are better off dead.”
Bishop Peter Stasiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy of Saints Peter and Paul of Melbourne said support of euthanasia and assisted suicide is “motivated by a false sense of compassion.” He wrote in an Oct. 12 pastoral letter that “Endorsing suicide as a solution to pain or suffering sends the wrong message, especially to the young. Suicide is a tragedy for the person who takes their own life, but it also seriously affects their family and community. It would be morally corrupt to legally endorse any form of suicide.”
The Roman Catholic bishops in Victoria wrote a similar pastoral letter Oct. 9, noting that Victoria has “abolished the death penalty because we learnt that in spite of our best efforts, our justice system could never guarantee that an innocent person would not be killed by mistake or by false evidence. Our health system, like our justice system, is not perfect. Mistakes happen. To introduce this law presuming everyone will be safe is naïve. We need to consider the safety of those whose ability to speak for themselves is limited by fear, disability, illness or old age.”
In July Catholics, including Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, and leaders from several Christian denominations joined together to sign a letter protesting the proposal, charging that euthanasia and assisted suicide “represent the abandonment of those who are in greatest need of our care and support.”
In April, the local Catholic bishops said the proposal was based on “misplaced compassion.” “Euthanasia and assisted suicide are the opposite of care and represent the abandonment of the sick and the suffering, of older and dying persons,” they said in a pastoral letter. They also invoked the commandment “You Shall Not Kill” and cited the situation in countries like Holland where there are pressures on the elderly to commit suicide.
The effort to legalize assisted suicide in Victoria has been debated for more than a year. In June 2016, a parliamentary committee recommended legalizing voluntary euthanasia. At the time, some physicians criticized the move. They charged that some lawmakers had naïve expectations and overestimated the speed and painlessness of a euthanasia death. They warned that the legalization risked diminishing palliative care, which they said was already underused and underfunded.
A proposal similar to the Victorian bill will be debated in New South Wales in November. Last year, the national parliament defeated a euthanasia bill, as did the parliament of Tasmania in 2013. Australia's Northern Territory legalized assisted suicide in 1995, but the national parliament overturned the law two years later.