“Such is Life”: Euthanasia and Capital Punishment in Australia: Consistency or Contradiction?

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Lawful euthanasia involves State endorsed termination of human life. Apart from a period of less than 9 months, in the Northern Territory, euthanasia has been illegal in Australia. Many of Australia’s parliaments have regularly considered introducing the practice and they continue to do so. In this context, this paper considers another type of State endorsed termination of human life: capital punishment. These took place in Australia from 1788 to 1967. The practice was abolished nationwide by 1985 and the Commonwealth passed laws, in 2010, to prevent its reintroduction. This paper does not consider all of the arguments for or against euthanasia or capital punishment and nor does it argue that the two practices are identical. Instead, it argues that introducing euthanasia without careful consideration of the arguments and experiences of capital punishment would risk repetition of past mistakes. The paper considers whether introducing euthanasia would be inconsistent with arguments accepted as grounds for the abolition of capital punishment. It focuses, on the irrevocable argument. This is the argument that death is irrevocable and that the risk of an innocent person being executed should never be taken. The paper argues that, any criteria which might be adopted by the State as sufficient to justify euthanasia, would run the risk of people outside that criteria being euthanised. The paper argues that capital punishment and euthanasia each pose disproportionate risks to minority and vulnerable groups. The paper also argues that, the evidence of pain and suffering endured by the condemned in their execution require careful consideration in relation to arguments for euthanasia as a means to a quick and pain free “good death.” It considers the evidence that demonstrates that, like execution, euthanasia in practice can be slow and painful. The paper then argues that requiring health professional to administer lethal injections in acts of euthanasia would be inconsistent with the approach taken in Australia and the United States to the identification of those willing to administer the death penalty. The paper concludes that many of the key arguments which resulted in the abolition of the death penalty in Australia support the continued prohibition of euthanasia in Australia and ought to be addressed by proponents of change but its primary aim is to encourage further examination of the extent to which learnings relevant to the current euthanasia debate can be gained by examining the arguments and experience of capital punishment.
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