Twenty years ago today, cancer patient Bob Dent put an end to his suffering by following the instructions provided to take his own life in Darwin. It was Australia's first legally assisted suicide, performed under the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.
A year later, in 1997, Kevin Andrews pushed a private members bill through Federal Parliament that invalidated the legislation. Ever since, assisting someone to commit suicide has been a serious crime in Australia. Three states have life imprisonment as the maximum penalty, while in others the maximum penalty varies from 5 to 25 years.
Denying assistance to those who are suffering and wish to end their own lives is extraordinarily cruel. It can result in a long and painful death. Too weak or incapacitated to end their lives themselves, they are condemned to suffer until nature takes its course. For some facing that prospect, the preferred approach is to die by their own hand while it is still possible.
Most people accept that painlessly ending the suffering of animals is an act of compassion. As a veterinarian I often had the decision to put an animal to sleep placed in my hands, because animals cannot give consent. Yet even when we give consent and beg for help, the law denies humans the same compassion.
There is no better sign of individual freedom than the ability to decide what to do with our own body. If the law prevents us from making free choices about our own bodies, then we are not really free at all.
While it is too late to simply reinstate the Northern Territory Act, the easiest approach to facilitate the path to legalising assisted suicide would be repeal the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997 -– the 'Andrews Bill'.
I have introduced a private Senator's bill to do just that. If passed, it would restore the right of the ACT and NT to legislate on assisted suicide, and send a signal to the states that it is time they stopped ignoring it.
Opinion polls confirm more than 70 percent of Australians favour legalised assisted suicide. On this deeply personal matter, government intrusion is not warranted.