24 Years Since the Northern Territory Euthanasia Experiment

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By Lauren Bernard

24 years ago on this day, a euthanasia law came into effect for the first time anywhere in the world – the Northern Territory.

This experiment lasted for nine months and quickly uncovered the grim reality of euthanasia. The law was overturned on 27th March 1997 by the Euthanasia Laws Act (1997) which once again made euthanasia illegal in NT.

In this short time, four people’s lives were ended by euthanasia advocate Phillip Nitschke. Three of these people had mental health issues and the fourth person may not have had a terminal illness.

A paper released on the four deaths, principally authored by consultant psychiatrist and professor of palliative medicine, Professor David Kissane, identified three key areas of concern.

Firstly, fatigue, fragility and depression were identified as the prominent concerns among people who requested to be euthanised. Two patients displayed symptoms of depression and one of these was suicidal.

Kissane noted that “nonetheless, continued psychiatric care seemed warranted – a psychiatrist can have an active therapeutic role in ameliorating suffering rather than being used only as a gatekeeper to euthanasia”.

Secondly, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (1995) required the patient to be terminally ill in order to be eligible for euthanasia. There was at least one patient who may not have had a terminal illness. Several physicians disagreed about the patient’s condition, and eventually an orthopaedic surgeon agreed to sign the necessary paperwork.

Finally, patients were only eligible for euthanasia if they were experiencing “severe pain or suffering”. Professor Kissane explained that “pain was not a prominent clinical issue in our study. Fatigue, frailty, depression, and other symptoms contributed more to the suffering of patients. There is a need to respond creatively to social isolation, and to treat actively all symptoms with early and skilled palliative care.”

All too often we are sold the lie that euthanasia will relieve the unbearable pain that some people experience, whether by physical, social or mental causes. We are told that for these people, allowing them to end their lives is the merciful option.

The euthanasia experiment in the Northern Territory 24 years ago unveils the reality of this misplaced compassion. Instead, Australians deserve better palliative care and mental health services. Euthanasia is not the answer.

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