Euthanasia Down Under

MAY 29, 1995 VOLUME 2, NUMBER 47

What state legislative body is the first to adopt a formal mechanism for permitting physicians to participate in the suicide of terminally ill patients? If you answered Washington or Oregon, you are wrong. If you broadened the definition of “state” and answered The Netherlands, you are still wrong.

Last week The Northern Territory, Australia (Capital: Darwin), by a 15-10 vote, became the first state with a legislatively-adopted provision which permits voluntary euthanasia. The new law is effective only when the following circumstances are met:

  • the patient must be over age 18, competent and suffering from extreme pain for which no further pain control measures are available.
  • the patient must initiate the request, and then wait seven days.
  • two doctors (one of whom must have psychiatric credentials) with at least five years experience each must certify that the patient is terminally ill and beyond medical help.
  • the doctors may not be related to one another by blood or business dealings.
  • both doctors must agree that the patient is not clinically depressed, and that he knows the effect of his decision on his family.

The new law does not specify the method of euthanasia which may be employed, but provides for adoption of regulations governing such questions.

Technically, the national government of Australia has the power to disallow the Northern Territory’s new law. Although the power is part of Australia’s constitutional framework, it has never been exercised before and observers do not expect it to be utilized in this case.

Although “physician-assisted suicide” has been adopted in Oregon, it was done by a voter referendum. Washington State’s year-old law was based on a federal court case declaring the prohibition of physician-assisted suicide to be unconstitutional. In The Netherlands euthanasia remains technically illegal, but the prosecutor’s office has adopted guidelines under which no prosecution will be mounted.

Elderly Living Alone

Elderly Americans are increasingly likely to be living alone, according to a newly-released survey. While 7.3% of seniors lived alone in 1960, over 30% were doing so by the late 1980s.

At least part of this growth phenomenon has been attributed to increasing divorce rates. Still, the largest force in the growth of the elderly living alone is the fact that women outlive their spouses by an average of nearly 7 years, coupled with the aging of the population.

Analysts predict that this continuing trend should result in dramatic increases in demand for assisted-living and home-based services.

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