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
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
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. …