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Minister Thumbs Nose at Terminally Ill

Last week’s SBS TV’s Insight program on voluntary euthanasia drew passionate argument on both sides of the debate. It was attended by the Federal Minister for Ageing, Christopher Pyne, Dr Phillip Nitschke of Exit International and Dr Rodney Syme of Dying With Dignity Victoria, amongst others. During the debate, Pyne made several misleading assertions.

Firstly, he claimed that suicide is illegal in Australia. It isn’t. While suicide itself is not illegal, assisting someone else to commit suicide is and carries significant penalties. Other debaters had to correct the Minister.

Secondly, he claimed that if Government was run by poll, we’d still have capital punishment. We wouldn’t. Except for polling after a major act of terrorism, and in respect of that act in another country, polls have shown that Australians favouring capital punishment have been in the minority for more than 25 years.

Thirdly, in dismissing a recent poll on voluntary euthanasia that showed widespread community support, he claimed that polls can be made to say anything. He should know—Mark Textor has been a principal pollster for the Australian Liberals and the USA Republicans for some time and has been accused of push polling during election campaigns.[1]

However, the latest Australia poll in February this year on physician-assisted dying for the terminally ill was conducted by one of the nation’s most respected research companies, Newspoll. Its methodology and sampling were independent and robust. It clearly showed that 80% of Australians believe that the terminally ill with profound suffering should have the right to ask for medical assistance to die. Only 14% of Australians are opposed.

Mr Neil Francis, President of Dying With Dignity Victoria, said “This poll delivers an unambiguous message to Canberra—one that can’t be ignored. It’s not just a slight majority. Repeated polls have shown a significant majority for several decades, so it’s time for Canberra to stop sweeping terrible suffering under the carpet and to give Australians the choice they believe they should have had for so long.”

Marshall Perron, former Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, said “Three Australians over 75 kill themselves each week in undignified ways such as by hanging or jumping in front of a train. That’s an appalling tragedy that Canberra is ignoring.”

“I was surprised and disappointed that the Minister would take such a cavalier attitude to the issue,” Francis said. “A Federal Minister holding himself in such ignorance of the facts while participating in a national debate is simply unacceptable. And if polling were really a useless thing to do, why does the Government do so much of it?”

By his own admission, Pyne is a conservative Catholic. He railed against cloning, stem cell research, abortion and voluntary euthanasia in an address to the 2004 Right to Life organisation’s conference. Of course, holding and sharing these religious views is entirely Pyne’s right.

Francis said, “The Minister would be deserving of more respect if he were simply to say ‘I believe my God says “No”, therefore the answer’s “No”’. He attempts to hide his true position behind bluster and false argument, but Australians are not fooled.”

On the program, Minister Pyne said “I think the fact that older people who feel they might be becoming a burden on their family and know that euthanasia is available might feel that it’s their family who want them to be euthanised…they might misinterpret what their family are saying to them.”

“But politicians are not elected just to hide behind perceived problems,” Francis said. “They are elected to find solutions, and it is easy to test whether a sufferer’s wish to pursue a physician assisted death is genuine and theirs alone.”

Dying With Dignity Victoria published a Legislative Charter early in 2006 which provides a full suite of safeguards. Its Charter has been endorsed by the Doctor’s Reform Society of Australia and The Australian Nurses Federation (Victorian Branch) among others.

Pyne has only been Minister for the Aged since Santo Santoro recently resigned amid accusations of impropriety over his reporting of private investments. Pyne headed an enquiry into Santoro’s conduct and cleared him of wrongdoing.

Francis points out that Pyne has been in Parliament for fourteen years, including when the Federal Parliament overturned the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act back in 1997. He had already been a member for four years at that time. Since then he has been Assistant Minister and Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing. Francis said “It’s very disappointing that Pyne remains so ignorant of the facts still to this day.

It is the responsibility of parliamentarians to make properly informed, evidence-based decisions instead of simply falling back on their own gratuitous opinions. By refusing to acknowledge the views of the overwhelming majority of Australians, Pyne is thumbing his nose at those who are rational yet suffering terribly from a terminal disease and who want the right to medical assistance to die with dignity on their own terms.”

Those wanting to express their views to the Minister can reach him on or at Box 6022, House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra, ACT 2600.