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Australian state takes a step closer to legalising assisted suicide

(Photo by Francis DEMANGE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty images)

Assisted suicide is coming closer in Australia, as one state parliament voted in favour of it on Friday.

After an all-night session in the Legislative Assembly of the state of Victoria, MPs voted 47-37 for the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill; it will now be passed to the Legislative Council (the upper house).

The Bill allows adults who are terminally ill and of sound mind to request a drug from their doctor that will end their lives.

In a fierce debate this week the Catholic former prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, said that voluntary assisted dying would be “an unacceptable departure in our approach to human existence … and what it means to be human”.

At the end of July Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne and other Catholics joined together with leaders from several Christian denominations to sign a letter protesting against the Bill, saying that euthanasia and assisted suicide “represent the abandonment of those who are in greatest need of our care and support”.

In April, the local Catholic bishops said in a pastoral letter that the proposal was based on “misplaced compassion”.

“Euthanasia and assisted suicide are the opposite of care and represent the abandonment of the sick and the suffering, of older and dying persons,” they said.

Part of the debate in the Victorian parliament focused on who would be covered by the Bill, with some members concerned about “euthanasia tourism”; one opposition MP, Robert Clark, said: “We certainly don’t want Victoria to be the suicide capital of the nation.”

There was also concern about the drugs that would be used. Another MP in the opposition centre-right Liberal party proposed replacing every mention of “voluntary assisted dying substance” with the word “poison”.

Other critics said there was no requirement in the Bill for psychological assessment of patients to find if they are suffering from depression.

But backers of the Bill say it had amongst the strongest safeguards in the world, and that it would only affect a small number of people with terminal illnesses, for whom palliative care could not manage their pain.

The state of Victoria may be leading other Australian states in the direction of assisted suicide; the parliament of New South Wales will debate a similar proposal next month.

Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said: “We’ve all had experiences with loved ones who have had very tough deaths, I understand the complexity for the problem but it is not something I would vote for.” But he accepted that this was a decision for individual states, not for the federal government to decide.