Cancer sufferer to be martyr for euthanasia cause

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A terminally ill Australian woman has become a standard-bearer for the campaign to legalise euthanasia after promising to commit suicide in front of family and friends.

Nancy Crick, a 70-year-old bowel cancer sufferer, plans to swallow a lethal drug at her home on Queensland's Gold Coast in the next few weeks.

Mrs Crick, who has chronicled her physical disintegration in graphic detail on the internet, has invited 20 relatives and friends to witness her final moments.

Australia's Northern Territory became the first place in the world to legalise euthanasia in 1996, but the law was overturned nine months later by the federal government after four terminally ill people had taken their lives.

In the Netherlands, legislation came into effect yesterday that enshrines in law a practice tolerated for two decades. Doctors may now assist the death of patients who face a future of unbearable suffering and who make a voluntary, well- considered request to die. Belgium has drafted a similar law.

In Australia, it is illegal to assist a suicide or to advise a person considering that step. According to Dr Phillip Nitschke, the nation's foremost euthanasia advocate, witnesses to Mrs Crick's death will risk prosecution and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Mrs Crick, who has been distributing sets of her front door keys to the public to frustrate police attempts to identify who was present, was diagnosed with bowel cancer three years ago. Since then, she said, her life has been "framed by pain and morphine" and punctuated by bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea. Three operations have failed to ease her suffering. She has lost most of her teeth and her weight has dropped to 27kg (4st 4lb).

"If I was a dog, they'd shoot me, but I'm not, so I have to put up with the pain," she said.

A plain-spoken former barmaid, Mrs Crick has promised herself that she will not have to endure another southern hemisphere winter. She is also determined to be a martyr to the euthanasia cause. "I want to die at the time and place of my choosing, with my loved ones around me," she said.

Her decision to make a public spectacle of her death has placed Queensland police and politicians in a dilemma. Peter Beattie, the state premier, has reaffirmed his opposition to euthanasia, while police have questioned Mrs Crick at her home and, she says, inspected her medicine cabinet.

The case has reignited debate in Australia, where opinion polls consistently find three-quarters of people in favour of "mercy killings". A man in Victoria who admitted helping his HIV-positive male lover to die was recently acquitted by a jury of assisting his suicide.

However, politicians are reluctant to grasp the legislative nettle. The New South Wales parliament rejected a Bill to legalise euthanasia last month.

Dr Nitschke, who assisted the four Northern Territory deaths and has aligned himself with Mrs Crick's cause, said last night: "We've gone back to the bad old days. It's like when women were seeking safe terminations before abortion was legalised. If you've got money and contacts and good friends, you'll be able to get help. If not, you'll have a problem."

In a concession to the authorities, Mrs Crick has agreed to go into hospital for a few days to see whether palliative care – which she has tried in the past – can ease her pain. Barring a most improbable remission, she will then set a date for her death.

"I'm not afraid of dying, I'm scared of living," she said.