Euthanasia Activist Wants To Use 'Abortion Boat' Strategy To Help Patients Die

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - An Australian pro-euthanasia campaigner is closely watching the experiences of Dutch activists, whose floating abortion clinic is currently making waves in Ireland, and considering his own plans to take euthanasia onto the high seas.

Dr. Philip Nitschke, who was instrumental in having right-to-die legislation passed in Australia's Northern Territory for a short period in the 1990s, wants to get hold of a Dutch-registered boat, man it with Dutch doctors, and offer one-way cruises for patients seeking an early death.

By sailing into international waters, he hopes to circumvent laws banning euthanasia in the patients' countries of origin and operate instead under Dutch law. The Netherlands earlier this year became the first country in the world to legalize euthanasia.

Last week a Dutch abortion doctor, Rebecca Gomperts, took a boat fitted with a small abortion clinic to Ireland, where abortion is illegal. There her Women on Waves group planned to take women beyond the 12-mile territorial limit for abortions.

Unexpected legal hurdles in the Netherlands, coupled with financial problems and what Gomperts said was overwhelming demand from Irish women wanting abortions, prompted the group to cancel its plans to offer onboard abortions during its current visit.

Instead it is focusing on highlighting Ireland's strict abortion laws and is handing out contraceptives, as well as the "morning after pill," which pro-lifers say is an abortifacient, at the dockside in Dublin. From there it will sail to Cork, before leaving Ireland Monday.

Although the abortion boat's maiden voyage has been something of a disaster for the organizers, Nitschke said he had been impressed by the project.

"We were very interested in what happened with the Women on Waves venture, and were keen to see what implication it would have for our plans to make use of the same strategy," he said by phone from Australia Tuesday.

He confirmed he had been in touch with Gomperts, and each had expressed support for the other's cause. He would soon be visiting Europe to check on costs and other matters, he added.

Nitschke said he was still trying to find out the legalities of pursuing his proposal under Dutch law. There had already been "unhelpful comments" from Dutch ministers who said they would try to "thwart such a venture," he said.

He conceded a lack of cooperation from the Dutch authorities could scupper the plan, but said: "We certainly haven't abandoned the proposal and I guess we'll be taking it further as some of these things become clearer."

The new law, which was passed in April, allows doctors to kill patients who are experiencing unbearable suffering, following certain laid-down procedures.

Doctors have to report each case, and a committee will then establish whether the guidelines have been adhered to, including the obtaining of a second medical opinion.

But Nitschke could possibly overcome the requirement of a second opinion by having more than one Dutch-registered physician onboard his boat.

While waiting for further clarity on the legal position, he said, he was also looking into the possibility of sending patients from Australia to the Netherlands, to die there.

"I've got patients keen to go to Holland to try make use of their law. Obviously it would be better not to have to go to those sorts of lengths, but whether you go to Holland or whether you go to a vessel it's a major undertaking," he said.

"Obviously people would prefer to have a peaceful and quiet death in their own homes, but we're still in that situation where people are desperate, and I see desperate people every day," Nitschke added.

'Burial at sea'

Although euthanasia is illegal in Australia and New Zealand, Nitschke runs clinics and workshops in both countries where patients are given advice on euthanasia.

"There are a lot of patients," he said. "Mostly they get by and do what they can, but there's a significant fraction of them who indicate that they ... would go to extraordinary lengths to access what they'd see as the best environment where they can get the help that they need - to the point of going overseas or of making use of such a vessel if it were to operate."

Nitschke confirmed he has discussed the ship option with his patients.

Asked how the plan would work practically, he said the ship would not have to be very big, but able to travel safely into international waters.

Relatives of the patients would accompany them on their last trip. Once the lethal injection had been administered, the dead patients would be "buried at sea."

Gompert's abortion boat crew has been forced by circumstances to use its current trip primarily to publicize a pro-abortion position. Asked whether his proposed boat would seek a similar role, Nitschke said it would obviously be "a very effective political strategy."

"But it has to be more than that. We have to be able to offer something otherwise the whole venture fails. It's a very expensive venture, and I'd hope to be able to offer more than simply the chance to publicize the issue," he said.

Dutch pro-life campaigner Bert Dorenbos, who firmly opposed the passage of the euthanasia law, said he has asked his country's lawmakers to ensure the new law would not enable people like Nitschke to exploit the situation.

The fact that the Australian was considering using a Dutch ship for his project was "proof that these people like to work in the dark," Dorenbos said.

In 1996, Australia's Northern Territory legalized medically assisted suicide for terminally ill patients, but repealed the law in early 1998.

During its short life span, Nitschke helped four patients take their own lives, using computer software he had designed.

The computer was 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 "death machine," as Nitschke himself called it, delivered a fatal dose of the barbiturate Nembutal, killing the patient in minutes.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow