The death of Martin Burgess

Nembutal and part of Philip Nitschke's euthanasia administration machine. Photographer: Mads Bødker.

Nembutal and part of Philip Nitschke’s euthanasia administration machine. Photographer: Mads Bødker.

Earlier this year, Martin Burgess, a terminally ill man in Darwin, died after requesting assistance to die. An anonymous donor had allegedly sent Mr Burgess a lethal dose of the drug Nembutal prior to his death.

Nearly 20 years ago, Mr Burgess wouldn’t have had to make his final days so controversial, public, or legally risky for him and others.

Bob Dent was in a similar position in July of 1996. He was suffering unbearably, unjustly, and had terminal cancer.

‘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 stated in a public letter, days before his death. (He was so unwell at the time, that he could not physically write – his wife took dictation.)

The legislation that made it possible for Mr Dent to die with legal medical assistance was the first of its kind in the world when it was passed in 1995 by the Northern Territory’s Parliament. Not long after, however, federal conservatives overturned the Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Current social services minister Kevin Andrews, then a backbencher, drew up the federal bill that made this possible in 1996. To this day, no territory of Australia – the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, or Norfolk Island – may legalise euthanasia via an process, even a democratic one such as what happened in the Northern Territory. The states, which have more powers, were and are unaffected.

Since 1995, a total of 29 voluntary euthanasia legalisation bills have been presented to parliaments in Australia. Queensland is the only state that has not yet seen such a bill presented.

Despite the numerous opportunities for legislators to legalise what has overwhelming public support, politicians have either lived in a different world or in fear of losing support from social, especially religious, conservatives. This reckless political failure is paved in the blood and tears of people who have needlessly suffered and endured long, painful deaths.

It has also forced conscientious and empathetic medical doctors to risk criminal charges in the course of their duty to care for the most vulnerable in our population – the sick and the elderly.

Australia was once at the forefront of voluntary euthanasia legislation, in legislation which sought to avoid needless suffering and offer humane, dignified deaths to those who wanted them. How is it that we have let almost 20 years go by and we are still no closer to permanently stopping this sadism which is too-often dressed in anachronistic religious babble? Does being unable to defecate, communicate, shower, or even stand up without assistance while you writhe in constant pain sound like a existence which has so much so-called ‘sanctity’ that you or I should be forced to live it for the rest of our days if would prefer not to? Not to me, it doesn’t. If it does to you, then I ask the ancient question: by what right?

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