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Second patient turns to Dr Death machine

But Australia's MPs seek to cancel law allowing euthanasia
Janet Mills, a 52-year-old with terminal cancer, announced yesterday that she would be the second person to try to kill herself under the Northern Territory's voluntary euthanasia law. But a political storm is threatening to stifle the controversial law after the Australian parliament voted to overturn it this week.

Mrs Mills, of South Australia, held a press conference in Darwin yesterday attended by Philip Nitschke, the man known as "Doctor Death" after inventing a computerised machine that allows a terminally ill person to choose their moment of death by pressing a button that induces a lethal injection.

The first person to use the "death machine" successfully last September under the Northern Territory's law, the world's first allowing voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill people, was Robert Dent, a father with incurable cancer. Speaking at the Dent family home in Darwin yesterday, with her husband at her side, Mrs Mills announced that she wanted to be the second. She is suffering from a form of cancer similar to that which killed Paul Eddington, the actor.

Mrs Mills has been supported by a doctor and a psychiatrist outside the Northern Territory, who have confirmed that her disease has no cure and that she was not suffering from clinical depression when she asked for her life to be terminated. But she lacks a third crucial requirement under the law, the signature of a territory specialist doctor on her written request to die.

"I appeal to a territory doctor to meet me and simply agree with my specialist oncologist in South Australia that I am dying," she said. "I now have a few weeks left to live. I am asking and begging for this."

But her request may not be heeded. The Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act has caused a nationwide furore since it came into force in July. The territory's own doctors, conservative at the best of times, have steered clear of it, isolating Dr Nitschke from their ranks. A chorus of disapproval has reverberated across Australia, from the Australian Medical Association, church leaders and the mainstream press who have branded the law as morally capricious and the Northern Territory as immature for bringing it into existence.

And now, the biggest threat to the law's future has come from Canberra, where MPs in the House of Representatives, the lower house in the federal parliament, voted by 88 votes to 35 in the early hours of Tuesday to overturn it, after a long and emotional debate. They did so by passing, on a conscience vote, the Euthanasia Laws Bill, introduced by a backbench MP from the ruling Liberal Party, which nullifies the territory law. The federal bill will now go to the Senate, the upper house, for approval. Dr Nitschke and his supporters have vowed to wage a campaign to defeat the bill before the Senate vote, expected early next year.

The Northern Territory's law allowing assisted suicide has now moved out of the realms of medicine and ethics and into the murky world of politics, specifically that perennial battleground under Australia's federal system, states' rights. Australia's six state governments have supported the Northern Territory government in condemning Canberra's intervention, branding it a dangerous usurpation of the regional governments' powers to pass their own laws. But the territory, a place the size of Europe and with less than 1 per cent of Australia's population, does not have the same constitutional status as the states. Although it has self-government, the territory's purse-strings, and therefore almost everything else, are controlled ultimately by Canberra. The territory does not have the right, as the states do, to appeal to the High Court against Canberra's intervention on constitutional grounds.

With the euthanasia law apparently in its dying throes, Dr Nitschke warned yesterday that he had patients queuing up to use it in the months before the Senate vote. He also received a brickbat over his decision to donate his inaugural "death machine", used to help Robert Dent die, for display at a Sydney museum. Bob Collins, a Senate member from the Northern Territory, said: "Philip Nitschke has gone one step too far. This is ghoulish. I call on him to desist."