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THE state of South Australia is often in the vanguard of social change.

In 1894 it became the

first place in the world to let women stand for parliament; in 1976, the first English-speaking
jurisdiction to ban rape within marriage. It was the first place in Australia to decriminalise gay
sex and outlaw racial discrimination. Now its parliament may make it the first Australian state

to legalise assisted dying.

This week two members of the state parliament introduced a bill that would allow terminally
ill patients to end their lives with medical assistance, provided that doctors thought they had

six months or less to live, that their suffering was intolerable and that it could not be relieved
by any reasonably available medical treatment. Assisted dying is legal only in Colombia,
Canada, a few European countries and a handful of American states. But the practice has a
long history in Australia. In 1996 the Northern Territory became the first place in the world to
legalise it. Four people made use of the law in the nine months before Australias federal
government overturned it and passed a law to prevent Australias three self-governing
territories from legislating on the matter.

But the federal government cannot overturn laws in Australias six states. Assisted-dying bills
have been introduced in South Australias parliament 14 times since 1995. Marshall Perron, the
chief minister of the Northern Territory when it permitted assisted dying, sees a growing

national momentum behind the idea. Bills introduced in South Australia in 2012 and Tasmania
in 2013 were both defeated by just two votes. In Victoria, a cross-party parliamentary inquiry
has endorsed legalisation. Polls suggest 70-75% of Australians support it. The politicians lag
the communitys expectations by a very significant degree, says Mr Perron.

The Labor majority in South Australias parliament includes several devout Catholics such as
Tom Kenyon, the chief whip. He has urged Christians to pray for defeat of this bill. But the

state premier, Jay Weatherill, backs it; the opposition leader, Steven Marshall, has been
evasive. Both parties intend to allow members to vote according to their conscience.

Nat Cook is a Labor MP and former nurse who has seen the terrible suffering people go
through and is satisfied that the bill contains enough safeguards, such as a requirement for
patients to be assessed by two doctors, to prevent abuse. In Victoria the parliamentary inquiry
heard testimony from the states coroner, John Olle, about elderly people driven to lonely
suicides. He mentioned the case of a 90-year-old who killed himself with a nail gun.

But opponents say it would be better to improve end-of-life care. Richard Chye, director of
palliative care at a big Sydney hospital, says 5% of patients ask for their lives to be ended, but
most change their minds after receiving effective pain relief. Paul Russell of Hope, an anti-
euthanasia group, says: Whichever way you look at it, euthanasia is an act of killing. Do we
really want to cross that Rubicon? The answer is uncertain. The vote on the South Australian
bill, both its supporters and opponents agree, will be close.