Euthanasia in Australia

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Philip Nitschke, an Australian physician and author, is a prominent international campaigner on euthanasia.

Euthanasia is illegal in Australia, but was legal for a period in the Northern Territory. It is not a crime for a person to take his own life. Furthermore, a patient can elect not to receive any treatment for a terminal illness and can also elect to have his life support turned off.[1]

Current situation[edit]

Although it is a crime to assist in euthanasia,[2] prosecutions have been rare. In 2002, relatives and friends who provided moral support to an elderly woman who committed suicide were extensively investigated by police, but no charges were laid. The Commonwealth government subsequently tried to hinder euthanasia with the passage of the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Materials Offences) Bill of 2004. In Tasmania in 2005 a nurse was convicted of assisting in the death of her elderly father, who had terminal cancer, and trying to kill her mother, who was in the early stages of dementia.[3] She was sentenced to two and a half years in jail but the judge later suspended the conviction because he believed the community did not want the woman jailed. This sparked debate about decriminalising euthanasia.[4] Decriminalisation of Euthanasia in Australia is supported by the Australian Greens, the Secular Party of Australia, the Australian Sex Party, the Australian Democrats, and the Liberal Democratic Party.[5]

In 2008 Shirley Justins and Caren Jennings, were found guilty of manslaughter and accessory to manslaughter respectively for providing Nembutal to former pilot Graeme Wylie in 2006. Justins stated that Wylie wanted to die "with dignity". The prosecution argued that Graeme Wylie did not have the mental capacity to make the crucial decision to end his life, classing it as involuntary euthanasia.[6]

An omission to provide life-sustaining medical treatment is lawful in Australia, unless the patient is deemed mentally incapable of consent.[7]

In August 2009, the Supreme Court of Western Australia ruled that it was up to Christian Rossiter, a 47-year-old quadraplegic, to decide if he was to continue to receive medical care (tube feeding) and that his carers had to abide by his wishes. Chief Justice Wayne Martin also stipulated that his carers, Brightwater Care, would not be held criminally responsible for following his instructions. Rossiter died on 21 September 2009 following a chest infection.[8]

Exit International made TV ads arguing for voluntary euthanasia, which were banned just before they were scheduled to broadcast in September 2010.[9]

Legalisation in the Northern Territory[edit]

Euthanasia was legalised in Australia's Northern Territory, by the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995. It passed by a vote of 15 to 10 and a year later, a repeal bill was brought before the Northern Territory Parliament in August 1996, but was defeated by 14 votes to 11.[10] Soon after, the law was voided by the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 (Cth), an Australian statute of the Commonwealth Parliament that amended the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act 1978,[11] the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 (Cth) and the Norfolk Island Act 1979 (Cth) to remove the power of each of those territories to legalise euthanasia, and specifically to repeal the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT). The powers of the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory and the Norfolk Island legislatures, unlike those of the State legislatures, are not guaranteed by the Australian constitution and may be amended or overruled by the Commonwealth. However, before the Commonwealth government made this amendment, three people had already died through physician assisted suicide under the legislation, aided by Dr Philip Nitschke. The first person was a carpenter, Bob Dent, who died on 22 September 1996.


The closest euthanasia has come to being legalised by a state was in Tasmania in 2013, when a Greens' voluntary euthanasia bill was narrowly defeated in the Tasmanian House of Assembly by a vote of 13-12. Although both major parties allowed a conscience vote, all ten Liberals voted against the legislation, with Labor splitting seven in favour and three against, and all five Greens voting in favour.


The euthanasia advocacy group[12] is the peak organisation nationally representing the "Dying with Dignity" associations of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania,[13] as well as the South Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (SAVES),[14] the Western Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society (WAVES)[15] and the Northern Territory Voluntary Euthanasia Society (NTVES).[16]

Exit International is an Australian euthanasia advocacy group founded by Philip Nitschke. Other Australian groups include Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Euthanasia[17] and Doctors for Voluntary Euthanasia Choice.[18]

Australian institutions and organisations that oppose the legalisation of euthansia are groups such as HOPE[19] and the Australian Catholic Church.[20]

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Bartels L, Otlowski M (February 2010). "A right to die? Euthanasia and the law in Australia". J Law Med 17 (4): 532–55. PMID 20329456.