Australia revisits euthanasia debate

The friends and family who watched a Queensland woman commit suicide last week may face prosecution.

Six times in just four days this week, Rodney Syme answered the phone and encountered a desperate, terminally ill person on the end of the line. All wanted him to help them die, he says.

"There's just been a bit of an avalanche," Dr. Syme says. "We had two in the same day."

Syme, president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in the Australian state of Victoria, knows why there's a sudden onslaught of calls, though. It's due to a chronically ill grandmother named Nancy Crick who last week committed suicide in front of 21 friends and family by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates.

Five years after Australia's federal government overturned the world's first state law legalizing voluntary euthanasia, the debate over physician-assisted suicide is grabbing headlines once again here.

Because of the highly publicized death of Mrs. Crick, and the decision of her friends and family to challenge laws that make attending the suicides of loved ones illegal, Australia is again confronting when and how society allows the terminally ill to die.

The main issue revolves around laws that make people attending a suicide to provide moral support, or just to say goodbye, party to the death. In the state of Queensland, where Crick died, the maximum sentence, if convicted, is life in prison.

But underlying the case of Crick and her friends is a bigger shift in strategy by Australia's proeuthanasia lobby.

While in the rest of the world euthanasia advocates are now trying to replicate the legalization of voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Oregon, in Australia advocates have all but given up on changing the law legislatively. Now, they want to find a way around it.

"After getting nowhere in those five years since the Northern Territory's laws were overturned, there is a degree of frustration, which means that people have been looking at other options," says Philip Nitschke, the physician involved in all four assisted suicides carried out under the Northern Territory law before it was repealed.

Chief among those options, Dr. Nitschke says, is trying to steer the issue toward the courts where, he and his allies hope, a precedent might be established that would lead to doctor-assisted suicides being treated much as abortion is in Australia.

Technically illegal in all but one state, abortion is nonetheless available on demand as a result of a legal compromise that has seen abortion providers left largely alone by police and prosecutors since the 1970s.

Advocates say that is a viable option because it offers a way around politicians who, despite overwhelming public support for the legalization of assisted suicide (polls consistently show 75 to 80 percent support), are afraid of angering a vocal minority. That political reality has resulted in a stalemate ever since the Northern Territory's law was overturned in 1997. As a result, repeated attempts to introduce legislation in various states have been rebuffed. And that's where Nancy Crick's case comes in.

When she committed suicide last week with 21 people in attendance, the question immediately arose as to whether her friends and family would face criminal charges.

The hope of euthanasia advocates is that, faced with a procession of mostly elderly women as defendants, prosecutors will choose not to pursue the case, or, if they prosecute, a judge will act compassionately and dismiss the charges.

"On a moral basis," says Syme, "it's just unbelievable that people would think that's a crime."

Euthanasia advocates believe that, if all goes well, they could force the first step in a practical – if not legal – precedent that, when followed by similar ones, would lead to a slow change in the interpretation of the laws.

"It's a baby step," Syme says. "It establishes that people have a right to die and shouldn't have to die alone."

Once that is established, Syme says, euthanasia advocates could go further in little steps that might one day clear the way for doctors to legally administer drugs to patients to help them die.

Pro-life groups, having seen abortion effectively legalized in Australia via those very methods, are doing everything they can to urge prosecutors to come down hard on the 21.

"If they couldn't prosecute in the first instance, in effect, it would be opening the back door to assisted suicide," says Graham Preston, the Queensland coordinator for Right to Life Australia.

Legal experts are slightly more skeptical. Loane Skene, a University of Melbourne expert on health law, says the way abortion is treated now is not the best model.

While the statutes are clear – abortion is illegal in most states – its interpretation is fuzzy and still dependent on accommodating prosecutors. "It's not a very good solution," she says. "It doesn't change the law."

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