Australians queue up for doctor's death machine

Long journey across the Outback for terminally ill pair frustrated by coalition of doctors, Aborigines clerics and anti-abortionists
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For Max Bell, 65, and Jan Culhane, 51, both suffering from terminal cancer, yesterday was the biggest anti-climax of their lives. Both had travelled across Australia to the Northern Territory to take advantage of the world's first law allowing voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill people. But, after months of wrangling between doctors, the historic law that was due to take effect yesterday was under challenge in the courts, with the prospect that its first two potential users may be denied their dying wishes.

As the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act came into force yesterday, a coalition of doctors, Aborigines, clerics and anti- abortion groups launched a challenge in the territory's Supreme Court, claiming that the law should be nullified because it contravened a right to life inherent in the Australian constitution.

The federal government in Canberra, at the instigation of John Howard, the prime minister, is likely to join the challenge if, as expected, it reaches the High Court, the country's final appeal court. Meanwhile, Kevin Andrews, a federal MP from the ruling Liberal Party, will introduce a bill when parliament resumes in Canberra next month to override the Northern Territory's law retrospectively. Doctors in Darwin, the territory's capital, have been warned that they could be charged with murder or manslaughter if they give lethal injections to terminally ill patients who request them before the legal challenges are resolved.

The most prominent such doctor is Philip Nitschke, 48, who has made headlines with his fight against Australia's medical establishment over the new law. Dr Nitschke has resigned from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) because of its opposition to the law, claiming it wants to keep in doctors' hands a power over death which he believes should rest with patients.

He has built a computerised "death machine" which enables a terminally ill person to decide their own moment of death by pressing a button that induces a lethal injection. Mr Bell, a retired taxi driver from the outback mining town of Broken Hill who is suffering from terminal stomach cancer, and Mrs Culhane, a mother from New South Wales, were to have been its first users. More than 20 other dying people, including one from Britain, have asked Dr Nitschke to help them end their lives peacefully.

Dr Nitschke was scathing about the court challenges yesterday, and suggested he may go ahead and act under the law regardless. "The delays are making what is left of these people's lives even worse," he said.

Chris Wake, 46, who was born in Britain and is president of the AMA in the Northern Territory, is leading the legal challenge. He said: "I don't believe there is a right to death. "The law is unnecessary. Doctors have a duty to protect the weakest members of society." Dr Wake has been joined by the Rev Djiniyinni Gondarra, a church minister representing Aborigines who oppose the law on various grounds, including an argument that euthanasia represents sorcery under traditional Aboriginal lore.

The Northern Territory, a place the size of Europe, has just 150,000 people, one-quarter of them full-blood Aborigines. It represents less than 1 per cent of Australia's population. Yet the legal, medical and ethical shockwaves from its bold law to sanction doctor-assisted deaths are reverberating around the country.