Bid to Promote Euthanasia Fails, But Activists Are Undeterred

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The latest attempt to pass pro-euthanasia legislation in Australia has failed, but the country's foremost "right-to-die" advocate predicts that ordinary people will increasingly take matters into their own hands.

Australian pro-lifers, meanwhile, would like to see laws introduced specifically designed to prevent activists from instructing people on how to kill themselves.

The upper house of the New South Wales parliament in Sydney voted 28-4 against a bill introduced by a Greens lawmaker, calling for a referendum on voluntary euthanasia.

Dr. Philip Nitschke, a euthanasia campaigner known around the world for designing various devices to facilitate suicide, supported the measure by Greens lawmaker Ian Cohen.

After it failed to pass a second reading, he showed reporters in Sydney the latest piece of equipment, a device to enable a user to inhale a lethal dose of carbon monoxide (CO).

"It's a simple device and they are getting simpler," he said.

Nitschke said in a phone interview Tuesday the device, dubbed the "CO genie," had been designed and modified by members of his organization, Exit Australia, and comprised items available at a local supermarket or hardware store.

Readily available chemicals were mixed to produce a pure form of carbon monoxide, he said.

Around 200 members of Exit Australia had signed up for a series of workshops around the country where they could learn how to make the device.

Nitschke said a manual "which outlines how to build one" was also being developed, for use at the workshops.

In a tactic to avoid legal problems for any one individual involved in drawing up the manual, it was being "co-authored" by a group of members, he said.

"It's a case of sharing responsibility. It presents anyone wanting to pursue legal action with a particular problem. It may be easy to [take action against] one author, but when you've got to put 20 authors ... that presents a political problem, if not a legal one."

'Flaunting the law'

Nitschke has drawn fire in the past for pushing the boundaries of the debate beyond those usually discussed by the voluntary euthanasia movement, by saying euthanasia should be legally available to anyone, not just the terminally-ill.

Australia has one of the higher rates of suicide among Western countries - 14.3 out of every 100 000 people according to World Health Organization statistics for the late 1990s (In the U.S., the rate was 11.3 and in Britain 7.4, while the highest was 34 per 100,000, in the Russian Federation.)

David Cotton, spokesman for New South Wales Right to Life, said Tuesday that Australia's federal and state governments were working with the community to help prevent suicide.

Yet at the same time, Nitschke continued both to flaunt the law and try to change the law, as he sought to make it legal for people to kill others and to help them to do so.

Cotton condemned Nitschke's campaigning, saying "suicide prevention, not suicide promotion" should be the focus.

"Just ask any grieving child, parent, sibling or friend of one who has suicided, to see whether we as a society ought to be promoting suicide, as Dr. Nitschke does, or preventing it as so many of our care agencies are doing."

Asked whether showing people how to build the device was not risking putting them into the hands of youngsters or others who may be experiencing depression, Nitschke rejected the criticism.

"It takes a bit of endeavor and application to come up with such a device. I don't think it lends itself in any way to the impetuous acts which are so much part of the problem of youth suicide, for example," he said.

"I see it as providing a lot of comfort to a growing number of elderly people who are ... concerned about the situation they might find themselves in as they reach the end of their lives."

'Passing laws irrelevant'

Nitschke said elderly people in that situation were losing faith in the legislative process.

The Greens' defeated bill had sought a referendum in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, on a legally and medically supervised trial of voluntary euthanasia for a period of 18 months.

Nitschke said the failure of the legislation marked for many people "the end of the legislative strategy."

"The attempt to try get politicians engaged on the issue have been unsuccessful, and there's no better evidence than that vote of 28-4," he said.

"This means people are going to put a lot more effort into refining the [euthanasia] technique, so that in a sense the passing of legislation becomes irrelevant."

Under the world's first euthanasia law, in Australia's Northern Territory in 1996, Nitschke helped four people to die, using a device he had designed. The law was subsequently overturned by the federal government.

The campaigner, known by his opponents as "Australia's Dr. Death," has been trying ever since to get legislation passed.

He said Tuesday there seemed to be an increasing reluctance by politicians to tackle the issue.

Nitschke attributed this to concerns in Australia's two major parties - Prime Minister John Howard's conservative Liberal Party and the official opposition Labor Party - about alienating "blocs of people heavily influenced by their religious beliefs."

"Neither major party wishes to risk a significant split within their party ... one of the very senior politicians said to me once 'the last thing you want is to find yourself being railed at from the pulpit at pre-election time.' "

Pro-life campaigner Cotton noted that Nitschke admitted in mid-2001 to have had an "intimate association" with at least 20 deaths.

Despite this, he was still registered to practice as a medical practitioner in every state of Australia.

"If Dr. Nitschke is to be stopped before the corpses pile up any higher, then we may need an amendment to the criminal law to specifically prohibit and penalize instructing in the methods of suicide in order to stop him and any like him, who seek to glorify and promote suicide, assisting in people's deaths."

See earlier story:
Activist Wonders, Why Limit Suicide Option To The Terminally-Ill? (Jan. 14, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow