Befriend a Vet for Access to Lethal Drugs, Euthanasia Activist Suggests

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Veterinarians in Australia and New Zealand are outraged at suggestions by a leading euthanasia proponent that people wanting to kill themselves should befriend a vet because they have access to lethal drugs.

Australian doctor Philip Nitschke, one of the most controversial figures in the global movement to legalize euthanasia and assisted-suicide, made the comments at a meeting while on a speaking tour in New Zealand.

Although doctors can't supply people with the fast-acting barbiturate Nembutal, he was quoted as saying, vets do have access to it.

Old and sick people wanting to kill themselves sometimes resorted to hanging because they could not get access to drugs, Nitschke said. "Desperate people do desperate things."

Vets, however, could potentially help, and "some quite courageous vets are prepared to move a bottle or two sideways."

Nitschke holds clinics in the two countries where information on euthanasia methods are discussed.

"I often say to people at my clinics: 'Do you have any vets who owe you favors?' " he told the meeting.

"A woman who came to a clinic told me she had gone back to a vet and reminded him of a brief affair she had had with him years ago. The next time I saw her she looked very happy."

Nitschke made similar comments in an Australian television interview.

"I'm telling people to get friendly with a vet because vets are the only people that have access to the very best of the drugs," he said.

Nembutal, the barbiturate that killed Marilyn Monroe, is the drug of choice of euthanasia advocates.

It is not generally available in Australia and New Zealand - although it used to be available as a sleeping drug - but vets use it to put down animals.

Nembutal is a controlled substance in the United States, and one of the drugs prescribed by doctors in Oregon under that state's Death With Dignity Act. It has also been used in suicides in Belgium and the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legalized.

If ingested, it generally induces a coma within minutes and death shortly thereafter. Vets use small doses, injected intravenously, to put down animals.

A vet working in Auckland said Wednesday he was shocked at Nitschke's suggestions.

"That is enormously bad news, making the assumption that a vet would ever do that," he said. "That's a stupid thing, an extraordinary thing to say. If a vet handed any of that stuff over he'd be struck off the register the next day."

The vet said the barbiturate was very potent when injected into the vein - one milliliter kills a cat in seconds, and 20ml a horse, he said. About 10ml would be sufficient to kill an adult human if taken that way.

While he thought it highly unlikely that vets would hand the drug out to friends, he conceded that from a practical point of view, it would be possible to pass on small amounts without it being noticed.

"It's actually not that well-monitored, to tell you the truth," he said. "You don't account for every milliliter you use."

He buys the drug by the 200ml bottle and the supplier keeps the information on record. A sudden substantial increase in the amount ordered would be noticed, "but you don't need much to kill a person."

The president of the Australian Veterinary Association, Dr. Jo Toia, said Nitschke's comments were outrageous and offensive.

She said the association was "genuinely horrified" at the suggestion, as vets took their legal and ethical responsibilities very seriously.

Toia said by phone Wednesday Nitschke's statements were also highly irresponsible.

They could encourage "desperate people" to break into vets' clinics to try find Nembutal, or to try to pressurize vets to hand some over, she said.

Already one member of the association had been approached by a member of the public apparently anxious to get hold of lethal drugs, and as a result had stepped up security at his clinic.

Toia said vets were bound by various codes of practice, and strict guidelines for the handling and storage of drugs.

"We have a very, very strong sense of legal and ethical obligations, we have a code of behavior, we have legal requirements that we have to abide by.

"Overall, veterinarians are ethical and it's a law-abiding profession."

Toia confirmed that any vet who provided veterinary chemicals for use by humans would be prosecuted under drug and poison laws, and would face certain loss of registration from state veterinary bodies.

Under the world's first euthanasia law, passed in 1996 in Australia's Northern Territory, Nitschke helped four patients to kill themselves, using a machine he designed linking a computer to an intravenous line delivering Nembutal.

The law was overruled by the country's Senate several months later.

Euthanasia remains illegal in Australia and in New Zealand, where lawmakers will soon be asked to vote on a death-with-dignity bill modeled on the Northern Territory one.

Nitschke's New Zealand tour was in part aimed at generating public support for the legislation.

The Australian campaigner has designed and promoted a number of devices in recent years to facilitate suicide.

See Earlier Stories:
Euthanasia Activist Wonders, Why Limit Suicide Option To The Terminally-Ill? (Jan. 14, 2003)
Euthanasia Campaigner Unveils New Suicide Device (Dec. 3, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow