Euthanasia on the last frontier


in Darwin

Already it is being talked about as the "death capital of the Pacific", and if Marshall Perron has his way, the Northern Territory will next month become one of the world's few places where doctors will be allowed to administer lethal drugs to terminally ill people who want to end their lives.

Shrugging off an all-Australia row, Mr Perron, the territory's maverick Chief Minister, said: "I saw my mother die of a heart attack and a mate, another MP, die of cancer. I have long felt that people should have the option to say `Enough'."

The Northern Territory is an unlikely place for Australia's first legalised euthanasia bill, and Mr Perron is an unlikely sponsor.Until now, only the Netherlands and Oregon have moved to decriminalise euthanasia.

Covering an area the size of Europe with a population of 150,000, the territory is Australia's last frontier, where roads are so long, straight and empty that no speed limits exist. Mr Perron, 53, embodies the territory's innate conservatism. But, since introducing the Rights of the Terminally Ill bill to the legislative assembly in Darwin last month, as a private MP's measure, he has been hailed by the pro-euthanasia lobby as a forward- thinking humanitarian.

His legislation would apply to any terminally-ill Australian who travelled to the territory. Doctors would be allowed to administer or prescribe a lethal drug to mentally competent adults suffering severe pain or distress due to an illness from which they are expected to die within 12 months. Patients must have made a written request, supported by two doctors.

A recent national opinion poll found that 80 per cent of Australians supported legalised euthanasia. The Aids Council of New South Wales, the most populous state, wants Mr Perron's bill copied nationally.

But a chorus of condemnation has followed from church leaders, doctors and right-to-life lobbyists who contend that, if the bill passes Darwin will become a macabre Mecca for those who want to be put to death, with terminally ill people pouring over the borders.

In Darwin, a Catholic bishop, Ted Collins described the proposal as "appalling".

Aborigines, one quarter of the territory's population, who have a grim history of genocide at the hands of whites and whose health standards remain grossly inferior to those of other Australians, are alarmed. Marion Scrymgour, director of Wurli-Wurlingang, an Aboriginal-run health service, said: "Many Aborigines can't understand consent forms that they're asked to sign now. What if they had a terminal illness? They'd be terrified of doctors `giving you the needle'."

In his office in Darwin's new Parliament House, Mr Perron defended his move. "Instead of people flocking to Darwin,'' he said, ``I think it's more likely that other states will follow this bill. Society is becoming more open about questions of death. Most of my support has come from young people. I think that the church's reaction on this is entirely predictable."

Doctors are bitterly divided. Many in Darwin believe that the millions which Mr Perron's government spent on the controversial new parliament building, breaking the territory's budget in the process, should have been spent building palliative health services instead. "The euthanasia plan is a cheap, crude solution to non-existent facilities for the dying," one said.

Brendon Nelson, president of the Australian Medical Association, has opposed the Perron plan as "quite unacceptable". He has also admitted to assisting two patients to die peacefully.

But ten days ago, dramatic support for the proposal came from seven prominent Melbourne doctors, who openly admitted to illegally helping terminally ill patients to kill themselves. These included a young man with brain cancer, a farmer with Aids, a man in his fifties with multiple sclerosis and a woman with breast and liver cancer.

Calling on the Victorian government to repeal the law which could send them to prison for 14 years for what they did, they wrote: "For the sake of all of those who may be unfortunate enough to be trapped in suffering and anguish, we ask you to put an end to the uneasy hypocrisy of our law and to allow us to work without fear of prosecution."