Parliament House, South Australia    

The latest in a long line of euthanasia bills was debated in the South Australian Parliament in a debate which finished at 4.02am this morning.  

As I sat at my desk last night and listened to the debate I began to compose an email to supporters advising them that, for the first time since 1995, we had lost a debate on a euthanasia bill in an Australian legislature. Adelaide, the state capital is a long way from Europe or North America, but this was an issue with world-wide consequences.

Just a few weeks ago, The Economist pointed out that “South Australia is often in the vanguard of social change”. In 1894 it became the first jurisdiction in the world to allow women to stand for Parliament and in 1976 and the first state in Australia to decriminalise gay sex. If legalized in South Australia, euthanasia would quickly spread throughout the country.

South Australia’s Death with Dignity Bill 2016 was the second bill to be debated this year. It came closely on the heels of an abandoned attempt to enact a “Belgium style” bill. That was rejected and the new bill was seen by many to be more moderate. It was a “good-cop-bad-cop” scenario. That kind of thinking clearly influenced a number of members of parliament.

For the first time in the history of the Lower House, the bill passed the first hurdle (its second reading) by a margin of 27 votes to 19. That took place in the early evening. As late as 12 hours before the debate, the numbers were thought to be slightly in favour of the No vote.

A small number of MPs who supported the second reading vote spoke of their concerns but were willing to see the debate continue. This reflects a culture drift in which fewer people have a sense of moral certainty about such matters. Instead, we see an increasing number who see no philosophical objections to patient-killing or helping people to commit suicide. They are swayed only by practical issues such as safeguards.

The debate moved to the committee stage where clauses are debated and questions can be asked of the mover of the bill. Running late into the night — all night — those opposed to the bill and others exposed the shortcomings of the bill in a forensic manner.

The mover, Dr Duncan McFetridge, seemed unable at times to answer questions about his own bill. This is perhaps unsurprising considering that the bill was introduced in an unseemly hurry and was drafted by a third party on McFetridge’s behalf.

When pressed on the question of doctor-shopping, for example, it took considerable time for McFetridge to acknowledge that people could, indeed, shop around for the answer that they want.

The bill provided for assisted suicide as a preference with euthanasia for people who, for whatever reason, cannot take the lethal drug themselves. Once the death is approved, there are no further checks or safeguards. Further consent (in the case of euthanasia in particular) is not required. No authorised person need be present at an assisted suicide, placing people in who are to die at home at risk from unscrupulous relatives.

That a small number of MPs held reservations gave some hope that the situation at the second reading might be redeemable. That would require four MPs to reverse their vote. This was tall order in a chamber of 47 persons.

The final vote was taken at 4:02 am. The weary members of the House divided 23 votes to 23. On the casting vote of the Speaker, the Death with Dignity Bill 2016 was defeated.

There was no precedent for what took place in the early hours of this morning. History was made at the second reading and then made again in the ultimate defeat of the bill.

We have been fortunate in South Australia to be served over many years now by a number of MPs who epitomise fortitude, tenacity and moral and ethical clarity. The result in the wee hours of the morning is a testament to their efforts. I know I’ll probably miss some names, but Tom Kenyon, Michael Atkinson (speaker), Sam Duluk and Jennifer Rankine come easily to mind. If I were ever in a hostage situation I would want Tom Kenyon as the negotiator and Michael Atkinson as the chief prosecutor!

What makes their efforts and this result all the more remarkable is the intensity of the campaign in support of the bill, spearheaded by celebrity Andrew Denton and supported by a willing media.  To the public it must have seemed that there was no opposition to the bill. Even the Premier and the Opposition Leader actively supported the bill both in the chamber and in the media.

But drafting laws to allow people to be killed has a sobering effect on legislators. Well, at least it did last night where the common good was re-affirmed, even if by the slimmest of margins.

Now I think I’ll rewrite my letter to our supporters…

Paul Russell is director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia & assisted suicide, which is based in Australia. This article has been edited and republished from his blog with permission.

Paul Russell is director and founder of the national network HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide. Paul has been involved in...