Taxpayer funding to train priests

Taxpayers would subsidise the training of priests and other religious workers at private colleges for the first time, under the Abbott government's proposed higher education reforms.

As well as deregulating university fees and cutting university funding by 20 per cent, the government's proposed higher education package extends federal funding to students at private universities and TAFEs and studying associate degree programs.

Religious teaching, training and vocational institutes would be eligible for a share of $820 million in new Commonwealth funding over three years.

Labor and the Greens attacked the policy, saying it breached the separation of church and state. Earlier this year the government controversially announced it would provide $244 million for a new school chaplaincy scheme and would remove the option for schools to hire secular welfare workers.

In correspondence with voters, Family First senator Bob Day has singled out funding for faith-based training institutes to explain his support for the government's reforms.

Eleven theological colleges are accredited by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to provide courses preparing students to enter religious ministries.

Institutes such as the Sydney College of Divinity, Brisbane's Christian Heritage College and the Perth Bible College, which currently charge students full fees, would be eligible for an estimated $4214 funding a year for each student under the changes.

The John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, which offers course units including Theology and Practice of Natural Family Planning and Marriage in the Catholic Tradition, would also be eligible for federal support.

The institute says on its website its mission is to "promote marriage and the family for the good of the whole Church and the wider community".

The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne requires all trainee priests to receive theological training at Ridley College or the Trinity College Theological School, both of which would likely be eligible to offer Commonwealth-supported places under the government's changes.

Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr said: "This raises serious questions about relationship between church and state. The church has traditionally funded the training of its own personnel."

Mr Carr said there was a difference between federal funding for theoretically focused religious studies courses and courses designed to prepare graduates for the priesthood.

Greens higher education spokeswoman Lee Rhiannon said: "[Education Minister Christopher Pyne] has gone one step further than robbing Peter to pay Paul - he is attempting to rob Australia's public and secular university system to pay private, religious colleges.

"Courses that Mr Pyne wants to extend funding to include those teaching prescriptive Christian ideology on sexuality and marriage - is this really the best use of the higher education budget?"

A spokesman for Mr Pyne said courses offered by private colleges would have to be approved by the independent regulator to gain access to federal funding.

"Consistent with current practice, the government will not distinguish between faith-based and secular higher education institutions for registration and funding purposes," the spokesman said.

Family First senator Bob Day said, in a letter to a member of the general public, that it is unfair that public universities receive federal funding but religious colleges and other private providers do not.

"The government's proposals . . . reduce the subsidies given to universities, while for the first time addressing inequity by providing significant subsidies for non-universities (but still less than universities)," he wrote. "Some of these non-universities that will receive funding for the first time - if this bill passes - are faith-based training, teaching, theological and vocational institutions."

The government's reforms were voted down by the Senate this week but will return to Parliament, with some amendments, next year.

Author: Matthew Knott
Date: 05/12/2014
Words: 594
Source: AGE
Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 1

The Catholic Education Office is warning parents not to vote for the Greens in four inner-city seats the party hope to win.

The Catholic Education Office has intervened in the state election, warning parents not to vote for the Greens in four inner-city seats.

In a letter sent to 5500 families in the electorates of Melbourne, Brunswick, Richmond and Prahran ahead of Saturday's state election, Catholic Education Office Melbourne executive director Stephen Elder said the Greens' education policy was likely to "adversely affect" Catholic schools.

He said the Greens' policy did not distinguish between Catholic and other non-government schools, which could lead to fee increases and make it harder to accommodate disadvantaged students.

"We are most concerned that the need of a school community could be measured through the value of its land and not the needs of its students," he said.

Mr Elder said Coalition and Labor commitments- including linking funding for Catholic education to 25 per cent of government school costs and $120 million over four years for new non-government school buildings and upgrades- would be put at risk if the Greens held the balance of power.

The Greens are investing a lot of resources in Melbourne, where they need a 4.7 per cent swing to pinch the seat off Labor MP Jennifer Kanis.

Ms Kanis said the Greens had failed to address the pressing issue of funding for Catholic schools, which educate many students from migrant and low-income families.

"Those kids deserve a quality education and investment in our system. As a Labor member for Melbourne I will be able to achieve much more for my constituents compared to an inexperienced commentator on the sidelines."

Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber described the letters as "a last-minute scare campaign not based on any evidence."

But Labor has also drawn the ire of the Catholic community, high profile religious leaders last week decrying a proposal by Labor, backed by the Greens, to amend equal opportunity laws to make it harder for schools to hire staff based on religious background or sexual orientation.

The principal of the non-religious Fitzroy Community School, Timothy Berryman, has also spoken out against the Labor's proposed changes in a letter to parents, saying the key issue of the state election was "the ability of like-minded people to choose to educate their children as they feel appropriate".

Mr Berryman told Fairfax Media the proposal was a "direct attack on multiculturalism" and that imparting values was the primary role of a teacher.

"It's not the role of an industrial tribunal to say schools can't impart [their] values," he said.

"I see it as demeaning to teachers. If our values aren't a part of what we do, we're becoming robots".

Read more:

Let's not over-complicate euthanasia debate

Paul Komesaroff and Stephen Charles

Does the voluntary euthanasia debate merely involve ethics and religion? Maybe a simple, practical, legal solution can be found, write Paul Komesaroff and Stephen Charles.

The long-running debate about whether voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide should be permitted by law continues to create division in the Australian community and arouse passionate views on both sides.

In the latest rounds of the debate, a Senate Committee has called for a conscience vote when the matter next gets to Parliament, the Australian Medical Board has suspended the medical registration of euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitzsche, and The Age has initiated a campaign of its own to influence public opinion. Sadly, despite the sound and fury, little progress is made: on the one side, the proponents of active voluntary euthanasia pursue the demand for enactment of "right to die" legislation, while on the other, their opponents continue to call for preservation of traditional values and practices.

The often strident and acrimonious tone of the debate obscures the facts that there is much agreement between the two sides and that there is a genuine problem in the current law that needs to be addressed. Recognition of this common ground might allow the social deadlock to be broken and for genuine progress to be made in the continuing controversy.

The agreement – which is demonstrated by all polls conducted on this subject – is that people suffering from terminal illnesses are entitled to adequate treatment of their symptoms and should be able to make key decisions about when and how they die. The problem with the law is that doctors who follow current best practice, by providing whatever care is needed to alleviate pain and suffering, cannot be confident that they will be protected from criminal prosecution for murder, manslaughter or aiding and abetting suicide arising from their active involvement in the death of their patient.

Of course, important areas of disagreement remain. Many members of the community find it hard to abide the prospect of institutionalised processes to promote killing in any setting, based either on their memories of the tragic history of the 20th century or on religious or philosophical convictions about the nature of death and ethical responsibility.

While the experiences from overseas jurisdictions – the US and Europe – are undoubtedly reassuring, it has to be accepted that these concerns are by no means frivolous. The possibility that the option of euthanasia might be seen by some as a device for addressing critical shortages in health budgets cannot be dismissed. Many doctors remain understandably nervous about the implications for their profession of what they see as a radical reversal of some of its most enduring precepts. The cases of people with chronic but not terminal illnesses remain difficult, and those of people without physical illness at all more difficult still.

We believe that a shift in the debate from the high-level – and inherently insoluble – abstractions about a "right to die" and the "sanctity of life" to a focus on practical issues that need urgent attention might allow the social deadlock to be broken and progress to be made at last in bringing about meaningful reform. To achieve this only modest changes in the existing law are needed.

We propose that legislation be enacted to amend the relevant Commonwealth and State Crimes Acts to provide a defence to a charge of homicide or manslaughter if a doctor has prescribed or administered a drug that hastened or caused the death of a patient with a terminal disease if the doctor: (a) reasonably believed that it was necessary to prescribe or administer the drug to relieve the pain or suffering undergone by the patient; or (b) prescribed or administered the drug with the intention of relieving such pain or suffering.

A simple legislative change to this effect would ensure that people facing serious illness could be confident that their needs will always be able to be met, and that doctors following accepted best practice in providing for the needs of their patients will be able to do so free from the threat of a criminal conviction. The responsibility of doctors to be able to account for their actions will not be diminished and protection for elderly and vulnerable members of the community will remain intact. The locus of end-of-life decision-making will be returned to where it should be: in the dialogues between patients, families and their medical carers.

This minimalist solution should be widely acceptable to the community, including to those who remain disquieted by attempts to purify death of its untidiness, uncertainty and risk. The difficult cases in which patients with severe chronic illnesses but without terminal illnesses request assistance with dying will remain unsolved, but the public debate will be able to move ahead to address the complex issues associated with them.

It is time to move on from never-ending, unproductive, circular discussions about end-of-life decision-making to a more practical approach that will solve pressing social problems and refresh the public debates.

Professor Paul Komesaroff is Director of the Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society and author of Riding a Crocodile: A Physician's Tale, and Stephen Charles QC is a barrister and former judge of the Victorian Court of Appeal.


Minister Mary Wooldridge's pro-choice stance on abortion leads to low ranking by conservative micro-parties

Conservative micro-parties have put senior government minister Mary Wooldridge near the bottom of their preference flows in the upper house because of her pro-choice stance on abortion.

Ms Wooldridge is the only Liberal MP to express a view on abortion in a survey ahead of the state election.

Despite being number one on the Liberal Party's list for the Eastern Metropolitan region, a handful of anti-abortion parties including Rise Up Australia, the Democratic Labour Party and Australian Christians have put Ms Wooldridge well below other Liberal candidates.

The three hard-right parties signed an agreement in August to help each other in the upper house, vowing to support candidates with shared values, including being opposed to abortion.

Australian Christians' eastern metropolitan candidate Vickie Janson, who is also the party's state director, said the parties discussed ways of influencing a "more pro-life vote".

"I don't personally know the woman [Ms Wooldridge] but I can't support her views," Ms Janson said.

"She doesn't support more humane laws and our laws are quite barbaric, most people don't realise that we have full term abortions."

The Democratic Labour Party, who have vowed to introduce a bill to wind back the state's abortion laws if they win a seat, put Ms Wooldridge number 30th on their list of preference flows, compared to ninth for Liberal MP Richard Dalla-Riva.

Family First also put Richard Dalla-Riva, who voted against decriminalising abortion, ahead of Ms Wooldridge.

However, Ms Wooldridge and Liberal MP Bruce Atkinson are set to be elected in the region on first preferences without needing any preference flows from micro-parties.

Fair Agenda, an organisation that focuses on fairness and equality for women, is asking lower house candidates to state their views on abortion in a survey ahead of the state election.

"It's disappointing that candidates aren't being upfront about where they stand," the group's executive director Renee Carr said.

"We know 85 per cent of voters support the legal right to choose, and that this issue would affect the voting intention of 48 per cent of voters. These people deserve to be able to make an informed vote."

She said Ms Wooldridge was the only Liberal MP to respond to the online survey, with the MP stating that she supported the current abortion laws.

Abortion flared as an election issue on Monday when Nationals candidate for Buninyong, Sonia Smith, threatened to not preference the Liberal candidate, Ben Taylor, for the seat because of his views on abortion.

Mr Taylor told an Australian Christian Lobby candidates event that he was opposed to abortions after 20 weeks and Victoria's laws had "gone a little bit too far".

"It's pretty horrific what can happen and when you start talking about nearly to birth where you're looking at abortion and termination, it's pretty frightening."

Premier Denis Napthine said he hadn't spoken to Mr Taylor about his views on abortion and wasn't planning to before the election.

Mr Taylor did not take questions from reporters in Ballarat on Tuesday, evading television cameras and journalists as he drove off in his campaign car.

However Ms Smith's threats to not preference Mr Taylor over his views appear to have come too late for pre-poll.

Volunteers handed out Nationals how-to-vote cards in Ballarat on Tuesday which listed the Liberals second.

Read more:

Path clear to enact the right to assisted death


For the past week, The Age has published in the pages of the newspaper and across our digital platforms a comprehensive series of reports, videos, opinions and contributions from our readers to advocate for the right of terminally ill people to choose, under rigorously regulated circumstances, the timing and manner of their death.

We began the coverage with an editorial urging the Federal Parliament to enshrine this right in law, and with a video testimony by a terminally ill Melbourne man, Peter Short, whose campaign for choice inspired Greens senator Richard Di Natale to propose legislation that would legalise strictly controlled physician-assisted death. We believe that what has been presented in the past five days has established and indeed buttressed the case for change, and today we underscore and amplify our call on our lawmakers to act by debating, honing and then passing Senator Di Natale's bill. Not only should every lawmaker have an unfettered vote on this, but our political leaders ought to urge support for the change.

The very day our series started, the cross-party Senate committee that had been receiving submissions and holding nationwide hearings on the proposed legislation declared that it, too, supports a free vote. The committee's chairman, Liberal senator Ian Macdonald, said his mother's prolonged demise had partly shaped his view that terminally ill people should have a right to assisted death, provided the law has adequate safeguards. We believe foreign experience demonstrates that such protections, importantly including for those with mental illness, can be constructed.

Surveys have long revealed significant majority support across the Australian community for such change. This was again apparent yesterday, when we published a Fairfax/Ipsos poll indicating as many as three out of four people believe those suffering from incurable illness ought to have access to physician-assisted death. This belief was clear, too, in our online poll. We have been buoyed by the community's participation during the past week, and would like to thank all those who contributed. People have shared profoundly moving stories, creating a compelling and even cathartic compendium. We urge those who might doubt the need for legislation to review the collection on our website.

There surely can be no more of a universal issue; death is the only certainty for each of us. Perhaps the most powerful argument for change is that, while the majority of those who are given the option of physician-assisted death do not actually use it, everyone who has the option benefits immediately because it alleviates fear and anxiety. This is clear in those places overseas where physician-assisted death is legal, and in Australia, where it is being practised by compassionate medicos at their undue legal peril. One such doctor, and a leading advocate for choice, Rodney Syme, openly and courageously admits having helped many terminally ill people find peace and relief by giving them the means and knowledge to end their own life.

We again stress that we do not support voluntary euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke, because through his organisation, Exit International, he aids people who are not terminally ill to die by suicide. It is in the public interest to pass a law that permits doctors such as Dr Syme to offer relief to terminally ill patients, many of whom suffer excruciating physical and psychological pain, but prevents those like Dr Nitschke from facilitating the death of people who should instead receive treatment.

Life is precious, and should be protected – but not at all cost. We believe the past week has indicated a strong and pivotal nexus of support between the community and its elected representatives for a law to respect the right to this humane choice. The way is clear for change, and the time to act has arrived.


The euthanasia lobby has hijacked the phrase 'dying with dignity'

Jack de Groot

A dignified death is quite possible without resort to assisted suicide.

The hijacking of the term "dying with dignity" by today's supporters of euthanasia and assisted suicide is an insult to the dedicated doctors, nurses and pastoral carers who daily provide compassionate care, pain alleviation and spiritual comfort to the sick, the dying and their families.

Debates about euthanasia and assisted suicide are emotionally harrowing. All the more so when they occur during election campaigns. The timing and manner of the current debate exacerbates the fear of dying held by many in the community and diverts attention from the conversation about providing the dying with the innovative medical and healthcare they need, in homes, hospitals and aged-care facilities.

Funding for end-of-life palliative care by governments and private health insurers is inadequate and undervalued. The first step in public policy regarding death and dying is to guarantee that those who need palliative care services can get them. For people who are poor or vulnerable, who are mentally ill or incarcerated, who live in rural and remote communities, it is crucial that they can get the palliative care services to which we are all entitled.

Overseas experience shows that where euthanasia legislation has been enacted, pressure has been applied to the frail aged, disabled and mentally ill to follow the now "normal" path of physician-assisted death. That path has little to do with dignity.

Usually the most terrible stories of suffering are told to advance a change to law that will allow euthanasia and decriminalise assisted suicide. This is understandable, but hardly a credible and rigorous presentation of the realities of care for those who are dying.

Many thoughtful people in our society support the notion that we should be able to die with dignity, yet still oppose the proposed euthanasia legislation because it's bad law. We all accept that people should not have to suffer unnecessarily. The proponents of euthanasia law reform equate a refusal to support the legislation with forcing the dying into interminable suffering. But the risk is that a change to the legislation simply forces the suffering into the additional and equally interminable dilemma of choosing their moment of death. Making it possible for people to end their life legally is not about dying with dignity.

With developments in the provision of palliative care in the home, and innovations in pain management, there is the prospect of an ever-improving quality of life at the end stages. The evidence for it and experience of it is strong. A recent Grattan Institute study showed that most Australians want to die at home. There is a very understandable desire for each one of us to die in the places where we have loved and been loved. It also makes economic sense for those enacting public policy. It will mean less time in hospital, and that is a saving. It may also be a lot less expensive than seeking a new legal process of multiple safeguards for someone to either commit suicide or be euthanised.

For those who die in the care of a hospital there are positive and loving care options available that can be further expanded. St Vincent's and other healthcare providers will continue to provide such dignity-based care.

Dying with dignity is not a new thing that those promoting euthanasia and assisted suicide have discovered. At Caritas Christi and in our provision of high-quality, person-centred palliative care, it has been a daily experience for tens of thousands of families for more than 75 years. We accompany people and their loved ones each day as they go through their own processes of dying over months, weeks and days; as they die and as their loved ones grieve and mourn for their loss. It is more the norm than the exception that we hear and see the most beautiful expressions of love, human affection, reconciliation and alleviation of suffering. It is dignified.

It is on the back of inaction on funding and investment in palliative care and a lack of education of the community about dying and death – as well as some false premises that all death is undignified and that suffering must be avoided at all costs – that euthanasia and assisted suicide are proposed now as "rights".

Dying, death and dignity are worthy topics of our public conversation. But they should not be manipulated. The truly compassionate response to our dying family members is the highest quality, evidence-based palliative care. It needs to be well-funded and researched, valued by governments and insurers, and promoted so as to always be innovative to meet the needs of our community.

Jack de Groot is group mission leader of St Vincent's Health Australia.


Victorians to get a greater say in dying with dignity under Labor reforms

Farrah Tomazin

Labor wants to clarify individuals' rights to make their wishes known in terms of future medical care.

Victorians will be able to tell their doctors not to give them life-prolonging treatment for future illnesses under a Labor plan to provide people with a greater say in how they die.

Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews told The Sunday Age that if Labor was elected this month he would introduce new laws giving people clearer rights to set directives about the kind of medical care they would want in the event of future conditions such as cancer, brain damage or dementia.

It just means people can be really clear about their medical conditions and the sort of care that they don't want administered, well in advance.
Daniel Andrews

At present, people can make orders for the treatment they want for an existing medical condition, but the guidelines around future illnesses lack clarity.

"We will legislate to change that," Mr Andrews said. "It just means people can be really clear about their medical conditions and the sort of care that they don't want administered well in advance."

Mr Andrews' comments came as federal MPs from both sides of politics declared their support for voluntary euthanasia on Tuesday, following a Senate report that paves the way for a free vote on national right-to-die laws.

State Labor's policy would build on the work of the Austin Hospital's "Respecting Patient Choices" program, and would involve changes to the Medical Treatment Act.

However, the position does not extend to euthanasia – an issue that would most likely be subject to a conscience vote should it ever be raised again in the Victorian Parliament. A Greens' private members bill for voluntary euthanasia was defeated in 2008 when the Brumby government was in power.

In other developments on Labor's campaign trail, Mr Andrews:

Headed to the south-east suburb of Mentone on Saturday to announce a $100million package for sports clubs to upgrade their facilities.
Rejected calls from the Greens to form a power-sharing alliance should the minor party hold the balance-of-power in the lower house after the election, saying "no deal will be offered and no deal will be done."
Refused to say when he would provide Victorians with costings of Labor's election promises, other than to repeat that the details would be released "well before Victorians vote."

With the campaign hitting the half-way mark, early voting for the November 29 election begins tomorrow. Polls suggest Labor is still ahead, but Mr Andrews was forced to defend reports suggesting his staffers were leaking against him. According to News Corp, whistleblowers in Mr Andrews' office had raised concerns about the excessive influence on policy by lobbyist Andres Puig, a former Labor official and now a partner in the firm The Civic Group.

Premier Denis Napthine said Mr Andrews had "questions to answer" about the influence lobbyists had on policy development, and the management of his office.

Mr Andrews said the report was "just nonsense", inaccurate and "part of the colour and movement of a campaign". Mr Puig did not return calls by deadline on Saturday.

Poll shows majority in Victoria support voluntary euthanasia

Three out of four Victorians say people suffering from incurable illnesses should be able to access assistance to die if they want to, a poll suggests.

However, neither the government nor the opposition has plans to engage with the issue before this month's state election. Labor leader Daniel Andrews said he did not support voluntary euthanasia and Premier Denis Napthine declined to state his personal view.

Both said they had no plans to refer the matter to the Victorian Law Reform Commission to advise them on possible legal changes.

Dr Napthine said: "That's not a matter I have thought to address. I believe that any proposal to change euthanasia laws is an important moral and social issue that should be decided by a conscience vote in Parliament."

A Fairfax Ipsos poll of 1000 Victorians conducted last week found 76 per cent supported a change to laws that ban assisted suicide and euthanasia. It comes as Greens senator Richard Di Natale prepares a federal bill seeking to legalise voluntary euthanasia for people suffering "intolerably" from a terminal illness. The bill, which is being refined, would make it legal for doctors to help mentally competent adults with an incurable sickness to end their life.

Ten candidates in the Voluntary Euthanasia Party will run for upper house seats in five regions in the Victorian state election.

Lead candidate Penny McCasker said the party's sole goal was to have voluntary euthanasia referred to the Law Reform Commission so it could report back to state parliament on changes to the law.

The party says people experiencing unbearable suffering, a terminal illness or an incurable disease should be able to access medical assistance to die, with appropriate safeguards to protect vulnerable people, such as those who might be coerced into making a request to die.

Ms McCasker said even if there was a conscience vote on the Greens' federal bill next year, she doubted that some politicians would feel truly free to vote based on their conscience only.

From : The Age, 14/11/2014

Federal MPs should have free vote on euthanasia, Senate committee says

Federal MPs should have a free vote on euthanasia, a Senate committee has recommended.

Tabling its report on proposals to legalise voluntary euthanasia drafted by Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee said that if a bill on the issue of euthanasia was introduced in the Senate, party leaders should allow Senators to vote according to their consciences.

Senator Di Natale's bill, which he has not formally introduced to the Senate, would make it legal for medical practitioners to help a terminally ill, mentally competent adult end their life.

In what constitutes the first consideration by Federal Parliament of national euthanasia laws, the six-member committee, which includes three Coalition, two Labor and one Greens Senator, recommended Senator Di Natale address several technical concerns, including about the definition of a terminal illness, before taking the bill further.

Senator Di Natale called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to grant their members a conscience vote.

"The community strongly supports this reform and it's time for politician's to listen," Senator Di Natale said.

"The Committee's report has highlighted some areas that need further discussion, which I intend to do with parliamentary colleagues from all sides before proceeding with the bill."

In 1996, party leaders granted MPs a free vote on a private members bill introduced by Liberal frontbencher Kevin Andrews to override Northern Territory laws which legalised euthanasia. The Andrews bill passed both houses of parliament, overturning the NT laws.

Right to die: Choosing an end to life

The desperation of the dying is something Melbourne woman Catherine Ringwood knows intimately. Much of her adult life has been spent in its company, first as a nurse then later as a counsellor for the pro-euthanasia organisation, Exit International.

It became personal 15 years ago when she was diagnosed at just 49 with leukaemia. Since then, Ringwood has fought hard for her life: chemotherapy, radiotherapy, then a mastectomy five years ago after an out of the blue breast cancer diagnosis and finally, gratefully, as a human guinea pig in a cancer drug trial.

The drugs aren’t working anymore and even though I am a positive person, I know I am pretty much out of medical answers. I feel some trepidation and obviously a great deal of sadness but I am also so glad I have thought deeply about how I want to die and had the conversation with those I love.
Catherine Ringwood

A month ago Ringwood, now 64, was told by her doctors at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre that the disease was back for good. "The drugs aren't working any more and even though I am a positive person, I know I am pretty much out of medical answers," she says. "I feel some trepidation and obviously a great deal of sadness but I am also so glad I have thought deeply about how I want to die and had the conversation with those I love.
Philip Nitschke with his 94-year-old mother, Gwen, who wants to die.

Philip Nitschke with his 94-year-old mother, Gwen, who wants to die.

"If I get to a point where I'm unable to walk, toilet myself, live independently then this would be unacceptable and I would choose to die."

Like many living with a terminal illness or with incurable suffering, maintaining control over their life – and death – is the most important thing.

Her decision to speak publicly about her own end of life plans is crazy-brave in the current climate.

Since April police have raided homes of Exit members in South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, searching for the banned euthanasia drug, Nembutal. A few weeks ago, a Victorian couple had a surprise visit from two Australian Federal police officers after Customs intercepted a parcel from Thailand containing a banned drug.

"Let them put me in jail, a lot of people in Exit are frightened but not me – can you imagine? Terminally ill woman in jail for victimless crime. Let them try," Ringwood says. Even so, her "action plan" is a secret and she makes it clear, she isn't about to jeopardise that.

"I have the 'information' I need to make my own end of life choice and that's what is keeping me sane right now," Ringwood says. "It would be a major catastrophe if that was taken away.

"Having a plan means that one day, I can give my hematologist a hug and thank him. I've never discussed this with my doctors though, because I am frightened they will say I'm depressed, and feel its one more thing they have to try and fix."

Information, knowledge, action plan, peaceful pill are all euphemisms used by scared, often terminally ill or elderly but sometimes perfectly well people as code for Nembutal. It is the holy grail of the voluntary euthanasia movement used here by vets to put down animals and by legal euthanasia programs in Europe to end the lives of people. It's the drug that turns otherwise law-abiding people into drug smugglers, death tourists, law breakers.

At the beginning of the 21st century, advances in medical technology have made it possible to maintain life where it was previously impossible. But those advances have pushed us into new medical, moral and ethical territory. With the use of sophisticated life support systems, is life being sustained or is death being deferred?

It is an issue many liken to the abortion debate of the 1960s and one which the medical profession, the church, hospitals, nursing homes, and parliaments as well as the broader community, is being forced to confront.

All agree the rights of the dying is the hot ethical debate of the times and will only intensify as the pro-rights baby boomer generation finds itself facing death.

There have been attempts at law reform in every state and territory bar Queensland. In 1996, Australia became, briefly the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise euthanasia for the terminally ill. It was overturned nine months later by the Howard government.

Now, a Greens-sponsored draft dying with dignity bill is winding its way through the committee process of the federal Parliament. It is the first federal attempt at legislation. One of its architects is South Australian GP turned senator Richard Di Natale. He says the time has come for an honest national conversation on end of life choices.

"Look, we know its happening in an unregulated space behind closed doors so there is a strong argument to say lets do it openly and try and break down some of the taboos around death and dying," Di Natale says.

Nearly two decades of reporting from the frontlines of the euthanasia debate has taught me that fear of dying, not fear of death, is the issue that motivates ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Stashed bottles of barbiturates, clandestine trips to dodgy Mexican border towns, failed suicide attempts, money lost in scam internet deals.

Fear of pain, but also the indignity of being trapped in a body which no longer functions but where the brain is as active as ever, can transform the most law abiding and conservative citizens into fugitives.

Not all people interviewed for this story were prepared to be identified. They don't want to risk having their drugs found, scared relatives alerted or their doctors tipped off.

One couple - we'll call them Carol and Bill - are in their 60s and in good health, and say they recently imported cyanide from Thailand after researching the subject carefully.

This is a new and alarming development in the euthanasia drug black market. Testing showed the drug was not pure and so Carol and Bill, like informed consumers, complained to the supplier and another package was sent. They say they are being responsible by planning for their future and liken it to writing an advance care directive or taking out life insurance.

"We're not alone, many of our friends feel the same way," Carol says. "It's our generation I guess, we're not used to having to put up with pain, we are used to choice. Its interesting how many people have made their plans, equipped themselves and now can get on with their lives."

Her own mother committed suicide by drinking Nembutal just before her 90th birthday. "She was not sick, she was not depressed, she just decided it was time to die. It was not a secret, we all knew her feelings because she valued life, she had meditated on this decision for a very long time. It was a textbook case of rational suicide."

But Carol's mother died alone. She rang her daughter after she had swallowed the medicine but no one was home. "She left a message on the answering machine saying she was sorry, she was tired and it was time to go. She was protecting us to the end by not involving us. I just wish she hadn't had to go through that last hour alone."

Earlier this year a fascinating correspondence took place between the former chief minister of the Northern Territory and passionate voluntary euthanasia supporter, Marshall Perron, and the South Australian coroner, Mark Johns.

Perron wrote to all Australian coroners seeking their views on what he termed "an unrecognised phenomenon in Australia ... the growing incidence of rational suicide by the elderly and the terminally and hopelessly ill". He was trying to gather some facts to support his contention that too many ill people are choosing to end their life prematurely and alone while they are still physically or mentally able.

"There is anecdotal evidence that such disguised deaths occur regularly..." he wrote.

Only Johns replied. "Much of what you say is quite correct and accords with my own experience," he said. " I agree that these deaths are a sad reflection on our society and the choices that many elderly people face...

"Whilst many coroners might privately agree that voluntary euthanasia ought to be available, coroners, like other members of the judiciary, should not involve themselves in political debates that are as hotly contested as that one.

"I do agree that the public is generally unaware. They rely on the people they elect to lead them to inform them of such matters and instigate debate."

Dr Rodney Syme has just come from the bedside of a terminally ill man who took his life the night before. Syme offers few details because he is aware that the police might turn up asking impossible questions of a grieving wife.

"I was there because I'd offered to support this person and to make sure the process went OK. We had a long conversation for an hour and half, going over it all again and then he took the medication and it was all over in about 20 minutes. I spent another three quarters of an hour with the wife talking over what had happened and she offered me a glass of scotch and I had it."

Suicide is not a crime in Australia but assisting someone to die is. Is just being present a felony? "The police have told me its not but aiding and abetting, for example handing someone a drug to take, is illegal," Syme says.

Personally, he has been goading police to arrest him for years. He admitted giving Nembutal to former Victorian journalist Steve Guest in 2005 while he was dying of esophageal cancer but the police have said there is not enough evidence to press charges.

Dying with Dignity Victoria – Syme is vice president – represents the mainstream "physician assisted dying" side of the debate which is the position the Greens draft bill espouses. They want law reform so that doctors who currently work in the murky grey zone of "terminal sedation" can practice without fear of prosecution. And the terminally ill and chronically suffering can have a peaceful, painless death at a time of their choosing.

"Medical assistance at the end of a person's life is just good palliative care," Syme says. "It's not illegal to commit suicide, to refuse medical treatment including refusing artificial food and fluids, to ask for medical treatment to be withdrawn – there is only this missing bit at the end – to allow people a dignified death with assistance by a doctor."

Gwen Nitschke wants to die but the very last person who can help her is her son, Philip Nitschke, the world's most controversial voluntary euthanasia advocate and, currently, a suspended doctor fighting for his medical registration and reputation.

It's deeply ironic that the 94-year-old, who has lived in a nursing home in Adelaide for the past six years and is still sharp as a tack, wakes up every morning and announces to the world that she wishes she was dead. Her son, who has written the book on ways to die as well as being the first doctor in the world to practice legal physician-assisted dying, cannot help her.

Gwen is not terminally ill, she is like so many elderly Australians, slowly dying. She can't move about without using a walking frame or wheelchair and she is lonely; living to nearly 100 means she has watched most of her friends go first.

"I am tired and I just want this to end," she says in a phone interview the week before her son's appeal against his suspension.

"I wish I'd done something earlier to help send me on my way but I left my run too late."

Nitschke says his mother feels stranded. "The weekly visits out to the nursing home are invariably difficult, stressful and hard going for her and us. Waiting is a form of suffering and that's what she is doing. I feel quite sad that I can't give her the drugs, I feel upset by her situation. She looks at me each time and says the same thing. 'It's just my luck to have you as a son'."


Syndicate content