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Greg Barns: Howard has another attack on our rights

The Advertiser, 09 jan 2006

WHILE many are alarmed by the incursions of freedoms and liberties being made by the Howard Government’s anti-terror laws, last Friday heralded the beginning of another attack on the freedoms and rights of Australians.

On January 6, the Federal Suicide Related Material Offences Act came into force. Under this new law it is an offence to use the internet or email to access, transmit or make available material that counsels or incites suicide. If an individual possesses, produces or supplies such material with intent to make it available on the internet, they are also guilty of a criminal offence. The fines are up to $1000.

Why introduce this law? Because the Howard Government, and the ALP who supported the new law, want to stamp out internet chat-rooms and other forms of information dissemination in cyberspace that suggest methods of suicide.
Yet this law is likely to criminalise the conduct of thousands of humane and compassionate Australians.

Consider this case. A person who has terminal cancer, is in pain and wants to end their life. They may email their friends and ask for advice about methods of assisted suicide. Any person who emails the individual with such advice could end up being charged and convicted of an offence under the new law.

Another example is when a person returns from a trip to Oregon in the U.S.
or the Netherlands, two jurisdictions where strictly regulated assisted suicide is permitted. That person might engage in a chat-room discussion about the types of assisted suicide methods being utilised in those jurisdictions. Once again, that individual runs the risk.

The Suicide Related Offences Law allows for public discussion or debate about euthanasia or suicide and doesn’t stop those who advocate reform of the law in this area from using the internet. But even here, those who want to argue that defence may find themselves in muddy waters. What if, for example, a euthanasia group discusses on its website methods of suicide, or relates stories from its members about how they have assisted dying friends and relatives to end their days in peace? Will all the members of that euthanasia lobby group be charged under this law?

Just as federal politicians are telling the community it’s necessary to sacrifice freedoms and liberties because of the threat of terrorism, so they are justifying the Suicide Offences Law on the same basis. When Attorney-General Philip Ruddock introduced the law into Parliament this year he cited a report on a trend in Japan toward strangers arranging suicide pacts over internet suicide chat-rooms. According to that report, said Ruddock, over a three-month period in late 2004 at least 35 people made suicide pacts online.

Various MPs who spoke on the bill in Parliament used the Japanese case and focused on the danger to young people of allowing discussions about methods of suicide online.

But what these politicians failed to recognise, is that there is a world of difference between the conduct of an individual or group actively encouraging suicide, and the assistance rendered by health professionals or euthanasia experts to patients who seek their guidance.

The Suicide Offences Law is an attack on freedom of communication. It is making criminals out of thousands of Australians who believe that voluntary euthanasia should be an option. Last Friday, another blow to freedom in our democracy was struck.

Greg Barns was Chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000-02 and is now a Barrister.