The legal status of euthanasia, and the issues surrounding the right to die ‘with dignity’ have been the subject of heated public debate in recent years. Although an individual’s right to make decisions about their own health treatment is widely accepted, this does not extend to controlling the way they die. Apart from a brief period in the Northern Territory in 1995, euthanasia remains illegal throughout Australia.

Active euthanasia is the term used when death is quickly and deliberately caused – for example, where drugs are deliberately administered to bring about the death of someone suffering a terminal illness or condition. Passive euthanasiais the term used when death is caused by withholding or withdrawing treatment that merely sustains life – for example, removing life support systems from someone in a coma. In the case of passive euthanasia, death is technically from ‘natural causes’.

The law relating to euthanasia in NSW is the Crimes Act, section 18(1). Under this section, murder has been committed if a person causes somebody’s death by acting with ‘reckless indifference’ to human life or with ‘intent to kill’.

Under this law, active euthanasia is perceived as murder. It is debatable whether passive euthanasia, which is regarded as death from natural causes, also constitutes murder. Even when the death is from natural causes, a doctor who withholds or withdraws medical support can still be regarded under the present legislation as the legal cause of death. Section 18(1) states that murder can be due to an omission (that is, failing to take action), so a doctor who performs passive euthanasia may be charged with murder if that action is legally interpreted as an omission.

Case study: euthanasia

An elderly patient, admitted to hospital suffering from kidney and heart failure, and with no chance of recovery, was treated only with oxygen. While the patient could have been extensively treated in other ways, this would not have saved his life, and it was accepted that placing him on oxygen would allow a natural death to take place. If he were given no treatment at all in the hospital, a murder charge could have been laid.