December 10, 2023
Backstory to Australia’s Ban on the Telephone & Internet
This week, the Federal Court of Australia ruled that ‘assisted dying’ is the same as ‘suicide’!
No surprises there although we suspect that there are plenty of ‘voluntary assisted dying’ groups will be upset at this revelation …
The action was brought by Victorian doctor Nick Carr who was seeking to have voluntary assisted dying (VAD) semantically separated from ‘suicide’, due to the fact that suicide cannot lawfully be discussed over the phone, email, fax or the Internet. At least not in Australia.
The law that makes such communication an offence, is the Suicide Related Material Offences Act (SRMO Act).
The SRMO Act is a 2005 amendment to the Australian Criminal Code. This week’s ruling means that ‘even’ doctors cannot discuss voluntary assisted dying (aka suicide) with their patients. There is no free speech in Australia, nor is there a right to privacy.
But let’s take a step back to understand where this law came from and why.
The change in law came about in order to ban the online publication that would become the Peaceful Pill eHandbook. This week’s judgment notes that the amendment was intended to complement 2002 changes to the Australian Customs Act.
The Customs Act was amended after a visit to Australia by the American pro-life extremist Wesley J. Smith.
Smith was, and is, well networked with close links to the editor of The Australian newspaper, Paul Kelly and senior (Catholic) journalist Dennis Shanahan.
The Australian went big on its coverage of Evelyn Martens’ homemade plastic Exit bags around the world, including to Australia.
The Right to Die Society of Canada was put under intense scrutiny in the process.
‘The suicide bags’ Shanahan wrote are ‘reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge’s shopping bag executions in Cambodia’s killing fields, [and]are mailed directly to applicants in a plain white envelope’.
Under pressure from the pro life lobby, the Howard Government (via Customs Minister Chris Ellison) quietly, but quickly, gazetted changes to the Customs Act. Evelyn Marten’s Exit bags became an illegal import.
Philip Nitschke came face-to-face with this hitherto unknown change to the Customs law when he was en route to the National Conference of the Hemlock Society in San Diego in January 2003.
Having created a carbon monoxide-generating device called the ‘CoGenie’, he had planned to unveil the contraption in San Diego.
The CoGenie consisted of a series of off-the-shelf PVC plastic pipes and tubes. Determined to enforce this ridiculous new law, these pieces of common plumbing were seized by Customs at Melbourne Airport as Philip sought to leave the country.
By its very design, however, the CoGenie was able to be simply and quickly reassembled: which is exactly what Philip did once he got State-side.
His keynote speech at the Hemlock Society received a standing ovation. Prime Minister John Howard was not impressed.
It is useful to remember that the French academic, Lisette Nigot, had died two months before. Lisette always said that she ‘didn’t want to turn 80’.
Her death was front page news. Prime Minister Howard said that he was ‘appalled’. In political terms, Australia was in a moral panic. Older people were now actively making their own end of life decisions.
Australian Government Moves to Close the Borders
With the borders now closed to physical items that could be used in a peaceful death, the Government turned its attention to digital communication, and the Internet.
It was here that the Suicide Related Material Offences Act was born. While Exit was never in the business of end of life counselling over the phone, email or Internet, the then Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, was on a mission on.
The Suicide Related Material Offences Act prevents the use of a carriage service (eg. phone, fax, email and the Internet) to discuss end of life issues. The law is extremely broad. It was intended to make Exit’s life difficult.
To begin with, the Peaceful Pill eHandbook would need to be published in the US where it is protected by the First Amendment of the US Bill of Rights. (Australia has no Bill of Rights.)
The 2002 Customs Act amendment remains the reason why Australian Border Force, even today, routinely confiscates the print Peaceful Pill Handbook on entry to the country.
Back to the Federal Court Ruling
Exit has long maintained that ‘voluntary assisted dying’ is a form of suicide. Not all suicide is the irrational act of a depressed teen. Some suicide is rational in outlook, and comes about as the result of an informed and long-held decision to end one’s life.
Because the term ‘suicide’ remains undefined in Australia’s Criminal Code, the Court relied on English dictionaries where it is defined as ‘the intentional taking of one’s own life’ (Macquarie) and ‘the action or an act of taking one’s own life’ (Oxford).
In response to the ruling the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese has stated that his Government has no plans to change the Criminal Code. How pathetic!
This from a man who, during the 1997 debate in the Federal Parliament on the overturning the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act had said:
I oppose this bill because I support human dignity.
I oppose this bill because I support freedom of choice.
I oppose this bill because I support civil liberties.
I oppose this bill because my Christian upbringing taught me that compassion is important.
I oppose this bill because modern medical practice should be open and accountable, not covert and dishonest …
And then he didn’t!