Australia Revisits Euthanasia Debate ; the Friends and Family Who Watched a Queensland Woman Commit Suicide Last Week May Face Prosecution

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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the physician involved in all four assisted suicides carried out under the Northern Territory law before it was repealed.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. …