Monica Doumit: Danger in laws without teeth

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Protesters opposed to the legalisation of euthanasia in NSW march through Sydney city streets headed for Parliament House on 18 November. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Imagine if tomorrow, the NSW Police stopped bothering to enforce our road rules. The laws would remain on the books, but they would not be insisted upon. People would be able to speed and text while driving with abandon. They could run red lights whenever they want and park wherever they want. On the very rare occasion when someone was fined or arrested for breaching the law, the courts would impose no penalty.

Some would no doubt continue to obey the road rules because they believe they make for a safe society, but there would be a number who wouldn’t. Not only would this lack of enforcement put the lives of reckless drivers at risk, it would put the lives of many others at risk as well.

This is what happens when safeguards in the law aren’t enforced: innocent people die.
On 24 May of this year, 80-year-old Colin Stratton drove himself to visit his GP, asking her for a ‘suicide pill.’ The doctor told Colin that she could begin the paperwork for assisted suicide, but the process would take up to two weeks. It was not clear whether Colin would even have been eligible for assisted suicide. Victoria’s laws require a person to be likely to die within six months, and the bowel cancer that Colin had been suffering was stable. His death was by no means imminent.

“The prosecution reduced the charges from murder to aiding and abetting a suicide, a crime that carries a maximum sentencing of five years imprisonment.”

Annoyed, Colin drove home with his son Glenn in the car. At Colin’s request, Glenn went to the shed and retrieved a .22 calibre rifle and bullet. He loaded the gun and handed it to his father, who intended to use it to kill himself. Colin’s arms could not reach the trigger, so he asked Glenn to pull the trigger instead. Glenn did and Colin died from a single gunshot wound to the head.

Glenn was originally charged with murder and held without bail for 46 days. The prosecution reduced the charges from murder to aiding and abetting a suicide, a crime that carries a maximum sentencing of five years imprisonment. Despite this, the prosecution also did not seek any further prison time beyond the 46 days already served. [It’s a whole other column but remember that this is the same Victorian “justice” system that pursued Cardinal George Pell so intensely.]

In sentencing Glenn, Victorian Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth said that the crime of aiding and abetting a suicide “reflects the importance of human life”.

Those who find laws too restrictive will be able to take matters literally into their own hands. Photo: Freepik.com
Those who find laws too restrictive will be able to take matters literally into their own hands. Photo: Freepik.com

“However,” Justice Hollingworth said, “the moral culpability of offenders who aid or abet others to commit suicide will vary greatly. An offender who aids or abets for a financial or other ulterior motive would be at the more serious end of the scale. An offender such as [Colin Stratton], who assists in the suicide of a terminally-ill loved one, would be at the lower end of the scale.” The lower end of the scale in Colin’s case was a two-year good behaviour bond. Had Colin not plead guilty, Justice Hollingworth said she would have sentenced him to six months imprisonment.

Those who argue in favour of euthanasia and assisted suicide in this country point to the legislative safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable. We are told there are “68 safeguards” in Victoria’s laws to make sure only those who meet the strict eligibility criteria are able to access lethal drugs. These so-called safeguards include a requirement that a person is terminally ill and will likely die within six months; that they are examined by two doctors, one of whom is a specialist in their illness; and that there is at least nine days between the first request for death and the prescribing of a lethal substance. All of these were effectively dispensed with in Colin Stratton’s case.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide advocates commenting on this case are using it to argue that Victoria’s regime is too restrictive and should be expanded so that people like Colin don’t “fall through the cracks” and children like Glenn aren’t put in the awful situation of having a parent beg them to kill them.

“Does anyone think that now a son has avoided any meaningful punishment for killing his father in this way that a doctor who bends the rules on prescribing lethal drugs to someone like Colin will be punished?”

But it’s not clear the law needs to be changed.

If the so-called safeguards are not enforced by police or prosecutors, then they are rendered meaningless, just like the road rules in my hypothetical example above. Those who don’t qualify for euthanasia or assisted suicide will now be able to have others assist them to die. Loved ones who find the regime too restrictive will be able to take matters literally into their own hands. It won’t just be family, either. Does anyone think that now a son has avoided any meaningful punishment for killing his father in this way that a doctor who bends the rules on prescribing lethal drugs to someone like Colin will be punished?

If anyone wants to mark the date that evidence of the slippery slope of euthanasia laws became clear in Australia, it was 9 December 2012. That was the day Glenn Stratton was given a two-year good behaviour bond for shooting his father in the head.

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