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Ethics briefings
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  1. Veronica English,
  2. Rebecca Mussell,
  3. Julian Sheather,
  4. Ann Sommerville
  1. BMA Ethics Department
  1. ethicsbma.org.uk

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Politics and end of life issues

New Australian legislation has been delayed, which would prohibit the sharing of information about how to commit suicide. It was held up in 2004 by opposition from some members of the Australian senate but the October elections gave the government control of the upper house, potentially allowing it to push through the new law in May 2005 when the new senate assembles. This legislation would introduce fines of up to A$120 000 (almost £50 000) for providing information about how people could kill themselves.

Some advice and information about suicide has been available in Australia through the organisation, Exit International, of which Dr Philip Nitschke is a prominent member. In an effort to pre-empt the legislation, he announced plans in November 2004 for a patients’ handbook about a suicide pill.1 A group of patients will actually take on the task of making suicide pills out of liquid barbiturates taken from easily available ingredients people have at home. They also intend to produce a handbook to guide other people, although this will become a criminal offence once the new legislation is in place.

In the United States, one of the last official acts of Attorney General John Ashcroft in November 2004 was to request the US Supreme Court to set aside the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. A previous attempt to block the Oregon legislation by punishing doctors who prescribe lethal doses was defeated by the courts in May 2004.2 Although less prominent than the abortion debate, the issue of the Oregon assisted suicide law was seen as an important election issue for conservative Christians who helped President Bush win a second term in office. The view of the Bush administration is that assisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose. Lawyers supportive of the law predicted that the …

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