Activist Wonders, Why Limit Suicide Option To The Terminally-Ill?

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Australia's most prominent euthanasia campaigner took his gospel to a national conference of America's leading right-to-die group at the weekend, and found some of his views a little too radical even for that audience.

Dubbed "Australia's Dr. Death" after the now-imprisoned American euthanasia campaigner Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Dr. Philip Nitschke joined several hundred euthanasia advocates at a Hemlock Society gathering in San Diego.

Although he was generally well-received by delegates as he outlined new methods for do-it-yourself suicide, Nitschke conceded afterwards that some of his "philosophical views" on euthanasia had not gone down well, and in particular "what to do when well people decide to end their lives."

In an interview on CNN the day before he addressed the conference, Nitschke said he thought elderly people who had "made a rational decision to end their lives" even though they were healthy, "should be listened to."

Some of the Hemlock delegates who heard the interview, he said later, had "indicated some discomfort about that."

So he decided to tackle the issue in his talk during a Sunday breakfast seminar.

"I pointed out that it's not uncommon that people get to a point in their adult life - possibly around 80 - that rather than wait for something to go wrong, they feel in a very rational way that they want to end their lives at that point, that they've come to the point where their lives are best ended.

"It seems to me that that's a very considered decision."

Nitschke referred to three recent such cases of suicide in Australia, which had sparked "considerable disquiet," including criticism from Prime Minister John Howard.

Sydney and Marjorie Croft, a married couple, both 89, and Lisette Nigot, 79, were\b all in relatively good health when they died. All three sent Nitschke farewell notes thanking him for his support. The notes were made public after their deaths.

Nitschke said voluntary euthanasia societies are on the whole uncomfortable with the idea of healthy people killing themselves, "but I wanted to suggest to them [Hemlock conference participants] that they consider it and come to a position rather than trying to hide it under the carpet."

Those who were most uneasy with this talk, he said, were those campaigning to change the laws in their home states to legalize euthanasia.

Many such activists felt that promoting suicide for healthy people would "harm their strategy of trying to get enough votes" to change the law.

The Hemlock Society has funded some of Nitschke's controversial work, including the development of a new suicide device using carbon monoxide, and he hopes to get an additional grant from them shortly.

Attempts Sunday and Monday to get a range of Hemlock Society executives to comment on Nitschke's proposals were unsuccessful.

But the group's founder, Derek Humphry, was quoted as saying in San Diego: "We do not encourage any form of suicide for mental health or emotional reasons."

Its website says the Hemlock Society believes that the euthanasia option should be available to " every hopelessly ill, mentally competent American," as a means to end "unbearable suffering."

Right to Life Australia national president Margaret Tighe said Tuesday Nitschke was on record as saying that even lonely old people and troubled teenagers should have the "right to die."

Some of the voluntary euthanasia society campaigners in Australia were "a bit embarrassed by some of his statements." she said.

Nonetheless, Nitschke's views and support for the notion of "getting out while the going's good" were evidently winning support.

Tighe recalled taking part in two broadcast interviews after Nigot - the 79-year old Nitschke supporter who decided to end her life despite being in good health - took a lethal overdose in November.

In one, both a lawyer and a pharmacist on the panel with her had been supportive of Nigot's action, while in the other, a former Australian federal attorney-general had "very much defended it" as well.

"So there are people around who think like this. The more [Nitschke] talks about it and the less condemnation he gets, the more people are going to be affected by it," Tighe said.

Controversial vocation

Since Jack Kevorkian's removal from society - he was jailed in 1999 for 10 to 25 years for his role in the death of a man with Lou Gehrig's disease - Nitschke has arguably become the most high-profile active advocate of euthanasia.

Under the world's first euthanasia law, in Australia's Northern Territory in 1996, he helped four of his patients die, using computer software he had designed.

Nitschke's "death machine" comprised a computer hooked up to a hypodermic needle inserted into the patient's arm. The patient had to answer a series of on-screen questions. The final one told the patient that if he pressed the space bar he would die.

If he did so, the equipment delivered a fatal dose of the lethal barbiturate Nembutal, killing the patient in minutes.

The Northern Territory's law was subsequently overturned by the federal government, and Nitschke has been campaigning since to bring it back across Australia.

By 2000, he was promoting the use of a special tent into which inert gases could be pumped, allowing two people to commit suicide simultaneously.

When Dutch activists launched a floating abortion clinic in 2001, intending to operate in territorial waters off countries where abortion is illegal, Nitschke pondered the idea of adopting a similar approach, offering one-way euthanasia journeys followed by burials at sea off the Australian coast.

In the second part of last year, he became the subject of a police inquiry after a 69-year old patient of his, Nancy Crick, killed herself with barbiturates surrounded by supporters.

A post mortem later found he sign of the bowel cancer that Crick and her pro-euthanasia supporters had said was terminal. All traces had apparently been successfully removed in earlier surgery.

Nitschke admitted later that he was aware she was free from cancer, even though he had not made that clear before her suicide.

In recent months, Nitschke's organization, Exit Australia, has been preparing to manufacture heavy-duty plastic bags featuring a collar to seal around the user's neck and deprive him of oxygen.

See related story:
Australian 'Death Machine' Promoter Seeks More Funding (Jan. 14, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow