Peaceful End Fires Euthanasia Debate

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No one could accuse Nancy Crick of not looking after those who came to watch her die. In her final hours, the 69-year-old cancer sufferer cut sandwiches and chilled champagne for the 21 relatives, friends and euthanasia lobbyists whose company she enjoyed while she overdosed on barbiturates in her Queensland home last week. She also videotaped a statement in which she tried to protect her companions from prosecution. "If anyone out there is asked to serve on a jury that is called upon to judge those who bravely chose to be with me when I died," she said, "I want you to acquit these people who have stood by me."

Not everyone regards her audience so benignly. Crick's death has reignited Australia's euthanasia debate, stirring zealots from both sides into action. EXIT Australia director Philip Nitschke lauded Crick as a trailblazer who'd shown "the injustice and the obscenity" of bans on euthanasia. But Right To Life Australia president Margaret Tighe said Crick was a "sick, vulnerable woman" who was used by the voluntary euthanasia movement "to further their cause." She had "succumbed to pressure from those around her" and there should be prosecutions, Tighe said. Assisting suicide in Queensland carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; witnessing it is not explicitly covered by the law.

While police are treating Crick's home as a crime scene, lawyers say it's unlikely any onlookers will be convicted over her death. Prosecutors would probably have to prove that one or more of Crick's companions helped administer the barbiturates and that it was those drugs that killed her. Even if the case were proved, a jury might sympathize with the accused and deliver a "perverse verdict."

Others involved in the debate hope Crick's death will "pressure the professional medical bodies into providing moral leadership on euthanasia," says Sydney University law lecturer Roger Magnusson, whose book Angels of Death explores the role of doctors and nurses in assisting the deaths of the terminally ill. Australians, he says, need to put aside doctors' calls for "clinical discretion," and the extreme views of lobbyists, and consider how to change the law to minimize public harm.

But don't expect politicians to rush to reform the status quo. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie said there was a "straightforward" reason why his government won't legalize euthanasia: "It's to protect people from being murdered." Nancy Crick didn't see her end that way. "It's my death," she said in her video statement. "I'm doing it, no one else."

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