Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995
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The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT) was a controversial law legalising euthanasia, passed by the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory of Australia in 1995, but effectively nullified in 1997 by the Federal Parliament. Dr Philip Nitschke, the first doctor in the world to administer legal, voluntary euthanasia, founded Exit International in response to the overturning of the Act.
While voluntary euthanasia had previously been condoned officially in the Netherlands and the US state of Oregon, the act was the first time that a legislative assembly passed a law explicitly legalising euthanasia.
Provisions of Act
Passed by the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly on 25 May 1995 under the stewardship of Marshall Perron, and entering into law on 1 July 1996, the Act allowed terminally ill patients to commit medically assisted suicide, either by the direct involvement of a physician or by procurement of drugs. It required a somewhat lengthy application process, designed to ensure that the patients were both mentally competent to make the decision and in fact terminally ill. Under the Act:
- A patient had to be over 18 and be mentally and physically competent to request his or her own death.
- The request had to be supported by three doctors, including a specialist who confirmed that the patient was terminally ill and a psychiatrist who certified that the patient was not suffering from treatable depression.
- Once the paperwork was complete, a nine-day cooling-off period was required before the death could proceed.
Reaction to Act
The passage of the bill — one of the first of its kind in the world — provoked a furore in Australia, and indeed in much of the rest of the world. The Act received both widespread support from "death with dignity" and right to die groups who saw it as model to be followed elsewhere, and widespread condemnation from euthanasia opponents, such as right to life groups, who sought to overturn it.
Use of Act
While the law was in effect, four people committed suicide through its provisions.
The first was carpenter Bob Dent, 66, who died on 22 September 1996. Dent was an Australian prostate cancer sufferer who became Australia's first person to lawfully end his life by means of physician assisted suicide. Dent, who had been suffering from prostate cancer for five years in what he called "a rollercoaster of pain", left an open letter when he died that stated: "If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don't use it, but don't deny the right to me to use it." He died with help from Dr Philip Nitschke.
The law applied to nonresidents as well and one nonresident did take advantage of the law. A resident of South Australia, Janet Mills, 52, came to Darwin in December 1996. She had suffered for some 10 years from a rare disease known as mycosis fungoides. She used Dr. Nitschke's device to take her life on 2 January 1997.
In addition, an anonymous 69-year-old male cancer patient used the law and Dr Nitschke's device to die on 22 January 1997. A further two people had received approval to use the law when the law was nullified; a proposed amendment to the Voluntary Euthanasia Laws Bill allowing them to proceed did not pass.
Overturning of the Act
While some people in the Northern Territory were unhappy with the Act, even campaigning for its repeal, the Northern Territory legislature was unwavering in its support for it. Support in the rest of Australia was much weaker, however, and opponents began turning to the Commonwealth (federal) Parliament, demanding it overturn the law, which it had the power to do since the Northern Territory was a territory rather than a state. While the federal parliament could not have overturned an identical state law, self-governing territories such as the Northern Territory are in a somewhat different position. Unlike the states which are sovereign entities possessing legislative power in their own right, a territory's legislative power is derived by way of a grant from the Commonwealth Parliament, which still retains the power -- in practice very rarely exercised -- to legislate for the territory. For instance, after a law receives royal assent from the Administrator of the Northern Territory, the Governor-General of Australia, on the advice of the federal Cabinet, also has the right to reject any territorial legislation. However, this power has almost never been used.
On 25 March 1997, the federal Parliament passed the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997, which, although not technically repealing the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, for all practical purposes rendered it of no legal effect. Rather than repeal the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (which it would have been well within its rights to do), the law instead amended the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act (the act under which the Commonwealth Parliament has delegated legislative power to the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly -- effectively the territory's "constitution" or "charter"), removing the Territory's constitutional power to pass any law permitting euthanasia. The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act technically remains in force in the Northern Territory, but to the extent that it permits euthanasia it is constitutionally invalid and of no legal effect.
Although passed as a reaction to the situation in the Northern Territory, the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 made similar amendments with respect to Australia's two other self-governing territories, the Australian Capital Territory and Norfolk Island, also preventing them from passing a law permitting euthanasia. The Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 has no effect on the power of an Australian state to pass any law permitting euthanasia and it expressly leaves open the possibility of a territory passing laws regarding the withholding of life support.
- Zinn C (June 1995). "Australia passes first euthanasia law". BMJ 310 (6992): 1427–8. doi:10.1136/bmj.310.6992.1427a. PMC 2549853. PMID 7613271.
- Mydans, Seth (2 February 1997). "Legal Euthanasia: Australia Faces a Grim Reality". The New York Times.
- "Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide in Australia". The World Federation of Right to Die Societies. Archived from the original on 1 February 2008. Retrieved 23 March 2008.
- "Euthanasia Laws Act 1997". www.comlaw.gov.au. Retrieved 6 January 2009.
- Northern Territory site on the Act - Contains links to parliamentary debates surrounding the Act as well as full texts of the Act and its nullification.