Harrowing debate over a `good' killing

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The Independent Online
Doctors, MPs, church leaders and lawyers were locked in an impassioned debate last night after it was disclosed that Bob Dent, a 66-year-old former carpenter with terminal prostate cancer, had become the world's first person to die under voluntary euthanasia legislation.

Announcing in Darwin that he had administered a lethal injection to Mr Dent using a computerised "death machine", Philip Nitschke, his doctor, said: "The patient fell asleep immediately and died peacefully shortly thereafter. It was a very difficult time for me, but I was left with the overwhelming feeling that I had done . . . something good by being able to end the suffering of this brave man."

Mr Dent died at his Darwin home last Sunday with his wife Judy and Dr Nitschke at his side. "He died with dignity," the doctor said. "It was a very poignant moment. There was also . . . a sense of history."

Mr Dent had asked to die under the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, which the Northern Territory parliament passed last year but which came into force only in July. The first law of its kind, it has bitterly divided Australians. When it was finally passed, by a narrow margin, the law contained so many amendments that its supporters complained it would be almost impossible to implement. Two doctors and a psychiatrist must approve a patient's request to die and verify that it does not arise from clinical depression. No Darwin psychiatrist would co-operate. Mr Dent was able to die under the law only after David Ellard, a Sydney psychiatrist, flew to Darwin and certified that he was not depressed.

Mr Dent received lethal doses of a barbiturate and a muscle relaxant from a machine assembled by Dr Nitschke, which delivered the drugs into Mr Dent's arm when he pressed a key on a computer.

Dr Nitschke's earlier plans to help other patients to use the law had gone into abeyance amid rows over legal challenges. One is to come before the High Court in November, when a coalition of the Australian Medical Association, aborigines and clerics will argue that the law violates an implied right to life under Australia's constitution. In the federal parliament in Canberra, a backbench MP from the ruling Liberal Party has introduced a Bill to override the Act.

At a press conference in Darwin yesterday, Dr Nitschke read an open letter to Australian MPs signed by his patient five days earlier, pleading with opponents of the law to leave it alone. For months, Mr Dent wrote, his life had been "a roller-coaster of pain" made worse by side-effects from the 30 tablets he was taking each day.

"If I kept a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted . . . If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia then don't use it. But don't deny me the right to use it."