Euthanasia law takes effect in Australia's Victoria state

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Voluntary euthanasia became legal in the Australian state of Victoria on Wednesday, with the government saying it had extensive safeguards to prevent the process being misused while allowing people a compassionate choice over how they die.

The legislation came into effect 18 months after it was passed by the state parliament in November 2017. Experts think the Victorian model may become a template for other Australian states if the introduction is seen as successful.

“This is about giving people who are suffering intolerably from an incurable disease a voluntary, compassionate choice over the manner of their death,” Jenny Mikakos, the state’s health minister, said in a statement.

To be eligible under the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act, a person 18 years or older must have an advanced disease causing them unacceptable suffering and is likely to cause their death within six months, or 12 months for neurodegenerative diseases.

They must have been living in Victoria for at least 12 months and be an Australian citizen or permanent resident.

The process cannot be completed in less than 10 days, and the person can change their mind at any time. Doctors and health practitioners are free to choose not to take part in the process.

Belinda Teh is walking 3,500 km (2,175 miles) from Melbourne to her hometown Perth to campaign for euthanasia laws in honor of her mother, who faced a prolonged and painful death from breast cancer.

“When the doctors told her she had several weeks left to live, she asked the doctors, ‘Can you help me go quicker?’ Both of her doctors said no because this kind of medical assistance is illegal,” said the 27-year-old said on social media.

“And she went on to die in a way that will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) opposes physician-assisted suicide, arguing that better palliative care can address pain and other symptoms of distress.

Religious groups are also opposed to the Act, saying it devalues life. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and three other bishops in the state signed a letter saying it was a “deeply troubling chapter of health care in Victoria”.

The remote Northern Territory, which does not hold Australian statehood, became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize euthanasia in 1995, but the laws were overturned by the federal government in 1997.

Many countries have legalized euthanasia, including Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and some states in the United States, although the Australian government opposes it.

Reporting by Melanie Burton and John Mair; Editing by Michael Perry