An Australian state has enacted euthanasia laws to allow terminally-ill patients to end their lives with lethal medication. The first death could take place in as soon as three weeks.
Voluntary euthanasia became legal in Australia's second-most populous state, Victoria on Wednesday, more than 20 years after the country repealed the first mercy-killing law for the terminally ill.
The process of an assisted suicide would take at least 10 days, so the first terminally-ill patient could die from swallowing a lethal cocktail of chemicals on June 29.
Assisted suicide is illegal in most countries. Victoria is the first Australian state to legalize it.
The legislation introduces strict safeguards so that only eligible patients can apply for voluntary deaths.
Criticism and support
Victoria State Prime Minister Daniel Andrews, whose father died of cancer in 106, said the laws give patients a "dignified option at the end of their life."
"We have taken a compassionate approach," he told reporters.
Australia's Catholic leadership slammed the enactment of the euthanasia laws. In an open letter, four bishops described it as a "new and troubling chapter of health care" in the state.
"We cannot cooperate with the facilitation of suicide, even when it seems motivated by empathy or kindness," the letter said.
"Pope Francis has encouraged ordinary Catholics everywhere to resist euthanasia and protect the old, the young and the vulnerable from being cast aside in a 'throw-away' culture," Peter Comensoli, the archbishop of Melbourne, and three other Victoria bishops added.
Euthanasia activists hailed the law but called it "too permissive and too stringent." Philip Nitschke told Melbourne's The Age newspaper that the legal conditions for euthanasia are "too strict and onerous," and could result in "challenges to the law pressing to broaden access."
Start of a public conversation
Other states have debated assisted dying in the past, but legislators failed to approve it.
"Although over 40 attempts to change the law in Australia have failed in the past, most recent reform efforts appear to be getting closer to laws changing," Ben White from Queensland University of Technology told AFP news agency.
"Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia (states) all have inquires considering change," he added.
Christine Thornton, the widow of a 54-year-old Victorian man who was euthanized in a Swiss clinic four months ago, said the introduction of voluntary mercy-killing in Victoria should be the beginning, and not the end, of a public debate on a lack of end-of-life choices in Australia.
She said that four months ago, her husband could not find two doctors in Victoria who could confirm that his ailment would have killed him within a year.
Read more: Belgium euthanizes terminally ill child
shs/rt (AFP, AP, dpa)