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Euthanasia Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 11:19 GMT
Lessons from Down Under
A television advertisement called for legalised euthanasia
Australia was the stage for the world's first fully legal act of voluntary euthanasia after the Northern Territory cleared the way with legislation in 1996.

Bob Dent, a terminally-ill cancer patient, was the first person to take advantage of the legislation. He received a lethal injection and died on 22 September of that year.

The lethal dose was administered by a computer, using software developed by Dr Philip Nitschke, a campaigner who pushed for the legislation in the first place.

To operate it, the patient had to answer a series of questions, the final one asking if they wanted to die. If the patient answered yes, the machine would deliver a fatal dose of drugs.

Three more patients received lethal injections before the Australian Federal Government overturned the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act on 27 March 27 1998.

The state's legislation had been strongly condemned by opponents including church leaders and Aborigines.

But the episode put Australia at the centre of the euthanasia debate, and the issue still raises high passions across the country.

Psychiatric condition

Under the Northern Territory law, two doctors had to confirm a patient was terminally ill and suffering unbearable pain before life could be ended.

A psychiatrist had to confirm the patient was not suffering a treatable clinical depression.

Dr Nitschke published final statements from the patients he helped to die on the Internet. He says they vindicate his actions.

Shortly before he died, Bob Dent dictated the following passage: "I can do little for myself, and require 24 hour nursing care. My haemoglobin has fallen to 8.3 (normal is 13.5 to 18.5).

"My red cells are decreased in number and deformed because of the cancer in the bone marrow. This anaemia causes shortness of breath and fainting because of the cells' inability to carry the required oxygen.

"An attempt was made to alleviate the symptoms of the anaemia, by giving me two units of a healthy person's blood. The procedure took all day, was uncomfortable, and did no good whatsoever.

"There is now a constant fear of a fall which could cause terrible injury to my fragile bones. I cannot even get a hug in case my ribs crack."

Television campaign

However, right-to-life campaigners have questioned the psychiatric condition of patients seeking euthanasia - most recently June Burns, a 59-year-old woman with bladder cancer.

She threatened to commit suicide in a television advert produced by campaigners for legalised euthanasia.

June Burns
June Burns said if she were a dog she would have been put down by now
The advert, broadcast in March 1999, is expected to be the first in a series showing the course of her illness until her death.

In it, Mrs Burns says: "If I was a dog they would have put me down by now.

"I feel life is very precious and I've enjoyed every moment of it and I wish I could go on, but I can't and I'd like to die with dignity."

Dr Nitschke claims to still assist patients in ending their life, even though it is now illegal.

He says he now feels like an abortionist in the 1950s, and advocates the prompt development of a suicide pill.

Euthanasia clinics

Dr Nitschke is reported to be building an underground network of euthanasia clinics.

In the last week of April, he opened a secret clinic in Melbourne. When it opened he had 16 patients waiting to see him, he said, most of them elderly and suffering from terminal cancer.

He said he already operates temporary clinics in Sydney and Brisbane, and plans eight more for other cities.

"It is a damning indictment of our society that we cannot speak openly and honestly," he said.

"Doctors are understandably worried, anxious and frightened about answering the questions and provide elliptical, tangential answers and the patients end up more confused."

Call for police action

But Margaret Tighe, president of Right to Life Victoria, called on the state to take action.

She wants police to descend on the Melbourne clinic and protect patients from "death campaigners" like Dr Nitschke.

She said he planned to tell people precisely how to kill themselves, which was against the law.

"Nitschke is clearly taunting the government and police to act and so they should protect vulnerable people who may seek out the Nitschke clinics."

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