At the weekend, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk officially launched Labor’s campaign for the upcoming state election. Among the platform promises she made was this: if re-elected, Labor will introduce “voluntary assisted dying” laws within months.
As far as I am able to tell, this would be the first time ever that a sitting Australian leader has incorporated euthanasia in an election platform.
With a crowded parliamentary schedule and the Covid-19 crisis afoot, euthanasia legislation was put on hold in Queensland earlier this year. Palaszczuk had conceded that the scheme needed “further consideration” — and in particular, a review by the Queensland Law Reform Commission before it progressed through parliament.
But Palaszczuk’s timing is curious. Though that report is only due back by March 1 next year, Palaszczuk promised to introduce the euthanasia laws a month earlier, in February 2021. Why the rush? Especially when she’d originally commissioned the review because, in her words,
“Voluntary assisted dying is a very complex and deeply personal issue, in which competing interests and views of Queenslanders and experts have to be carefully balanced, and the lives of our elderly and most vulnerable people protected.”
There are deeper questions for us to consider. What has led the Premier to conclude that pro-euthanasia legislation should not just be part of Labor’s agenda, but that it will be a vote-getter? What does this say about the electorate in Queensland — or at least Labor’s perception of it?
“Right to die” groups and supporters of course see the issue in terms of compassion and empathy. But it is beyond dispute that in jurisdictions that legalise euthanasia under a narrow set of circumstances, those circumstances broaden over time. In some cases, once-treasured protections are left in the dust without second thought.
Consider the Netherlands, whose government is now taking active steps towards legalising euthanasia for children between the ages of one and twelve, to the shock of many.
Rewind the clock to 2002, when the Netherlands became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise assisted dying. This is how The New York Times reported on those events at the time:
Parliament set off a worldwide controversy last April when it voted to legalize a practice the Dutch have tolerated for two decades. Opponents drew scary parallels with the killing of disabled and mentally ill people in Nazi Germany, but Dutch doctors must obey strict rules or face prosecution.
Among the conditions, patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering and must make a voluntary, well-considered request to die. Doctor and patient must be convinced that there is no other solution, another physician must be consulted, and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way.
Now, of course, a young child with no capacity to understand what faces them, will have the decision to die made for them if the Dutch government goes ahead with its plan.
The inevitable relaxing of restrictions around euthanasia was made evident in a conversation that took place recently between a member of the British Parliament recently and a Dutch doctor about the permissive euthanasia laws in the Netherlands. The doctor explained,
“We agonised over our first case of euthanasia all day, but the second case was much easier and the third was a piece of cake.”
In events closer to home, Victoria legalised euthanasia last year. The leaders most eager for the change assured the public that very few Victorians would make use of the new laws — and then, only in extreme circumstances. A year later, however, it was admitted that ten times the number of assisted suicides took place than were anticipated.
In the name of compassion, Labor has entered this election season on a platform that includes assisted suicide. Palaszczuk and her party would do well to study the many precedents around the world before getting too enthusiastic about where this will take Queensland.
And so would voters.