How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?

White, Benjamin P. & Willmott, Lindy (2012) How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide? Australia 21 Limited, Weston, ACT.


The purpose of this paper is to provide a basis from which to start an informed and rational dialogue in Australia about voluntary euthanasia (VE) and assisted suicide (AS). It does this by seeking to chart the broad landscape of issues that can be raised as relevant to how this conduct should be regulated by the law. It is not our purpose to persuade. Rather, we have attempted to address the issues as neutrally as possible and to canvass both sides of the argument in an even-handed manner. We hope that this exercise places the reader in a position to consider the question posed by this paper:

How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?

In line with the approach taken in the paper, this question does not take sides in the debate. It simply asks how VE and AS should be regulated, acknowledging that both prohibition and legalisation of such conduct involve regulation.

We begin by considering the wider legal framework that governs end of life decision-making. Decisions to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatment that result in a person’s death can be lawful. This could be because, for example, a competent adult refuses such treatment. Alternatively, stopping or not providing treatment can be lawful when it is no longer in a person’s best interests to receive it. The law also recognises that appropriate palliative care should not attract criminal responsibility. By contrast, VE and AS are unlawful in Australia and could lead to prosecution for crimes such as murder, manslaughter or aiding and abetting suicide. But this is not to say that such conduct does not occur in practice. Indeed, there is a body of evidence that VE and AS occur in Australia, despite them being unlawful.

There have been repeated efforts to change the law in this country, mainly by the minor political parties. However, apart from a brief period when VE and AS was lawful in the Northern Territory, these attempts to reform the law have been unsuccessful. The position is different in a small but increasing number of jurisdictions overseas where such conduct is lawful. The most well known is the Netherlands but there are also statutory regimes that regulate VE and/or AS in Belgium and Luxembourg in Europe, and Oregon and Washington in the United States. A feature of these legislative models is that they incorporate review or oversight processes that enable the collection of data about how the law is being used. As a result, there is a significant body of evidence that is available for consideration to assess the operation of the law in these jurisdictions and some of this is considered briefly here. Assisting a suicide, if done for selfless motives, is also legal in Switzerland, and this has resulted in what has been referred to as ‘euthanasia tourism’. This model is also considered.

The paper also identifies the major arguments in favour of, and against, legalisation of VE and AS. Arguments often advanced in favour of law reform include respect for autonomy, that public opinion favours reform, and that the current law is incoherent and discriminatory. Key arguments against legalising VE and AS point to the sanctity of life, concerns about the adequacy and effectiveness of safeguards, and a ‘slippery slope’ that will allow euthanasia to occur for minors or for adults where it is not voluntary. We have also attempted to step beyond these well trodden and often rehearsed cases ‘for and against’. To this end, we have identified some ethical values that might span both sides of the debate and perhaps be the subject of wider consensus.

We then outline a framework for considering the issue of how Australia should regulate VE and AS. We begin by asking whether such conduct should be criminal acts (as they presently are). If VE and AS should continue to attract criminal responsibility, the next step is to enquire whether the law should punish such conduct more or less than is presently the case, or whether the law should stay the same. If a change is favoured as to how the criminal law punishes VE and AS, options considered include sentencing reform, creating context-specific offences or developing prosecutorial guidelines for how the criminal justice system deals with these issues.

If VE and AS should not be criminal acts, then questions arise as to how and when they should be permitted and regulated. Possible elements of any reform model include: ensuring decision-making is competent and voluntary; ascertaining a person’s eligibility to utilise the regime, for example, whether it depends on him or her having a terminal illness or experiencing pain and suffering; and setting out processes for how any decision must be made and evidenced. Options to bring about decriminalisation include challenging the validity of laws that make VE and AS unlawful, recognising a defence to criminal prosecution, or creating a statutory framework to regulate the practice.

We conclude the paper where we started: with a call for rational and informed consideration of a difficult and sensitive issue. How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?

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ID Code: 54757
Item Type: Report
Refereed: No
Additional Information: An edited version of this paper will also be published as Ben White and Lindy Willmott, ‘How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide?’ (2012) 20(2) Journal of Law and Medicine.
Additional URLs:
Keywords: Voluntary euthanasia, Assisted suicide, Law reform, Health law, Medical law, Australia 21
ISBN: 9780987399113
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > MEDICAL AND HEALTH SCIENCES (110000) > PUBLIC HEALTH AND HEALTH SERVICES (111700) > Public Health and Health Services not elsewhere classified (111799)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > LAW AND LEGAL STUDIES (180000) > LAW (180100) > Criminal Law and Procedure (180110)
Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > LAW AND LEGAL STUDIES (180000) > LAW (180100) > Law and Society (180119)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Law
Current > Research Centres > Australian Centre for Health Law Research
Current > Schools > School of Law
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2012 Ben White and Lindy Willmott
Deposited On: 13 Nov 2012 01:38
Last Modified: 04 Feb 2015 01:28

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