Prosecution is Possible for Suicide Bags

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

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A day after euthanasia proponents in Australia publicly launched plastic bags designed to facilitate suicide, the country's federal government warned that anyone importing or making the death kits could be prosecuted.

Justice and Customs Minister Chris Ellison reiterated the government's anti-euthanasia stance, and noted that it was putting resources into trying to discourage suicide, especially among young people.

He called on authorities in Australia's six states and two territories to act against anyone manufacturing the suicide bags. "Aiding, abetting or inciting the killing of a person is a criminal offense in all states and territories," he stressed.

But the premier of the state where the bags are being manufactured said it may prove impossible to ban to bags without taking similar steps against other everyday articles that are dangerous if misused.

Earlier, the country's leading euthanasia advocate held a press conference in Queensland state to launch the "Aussie exit bag," a variation of a similar product promoted by Canadian euthanasia activists.

Dr. Philip Nitschke said 150 of the heavy-duty plastic bags had been commissioned and would be provided free of charge to long-term members of Exit, the voluntary euthanasia group he runs.

He said the bags' elasticized opening could be tightened around the wearer's neck, providing an airtight seal. Used in conjunction with a sleeping tablet taken beforehand, the device would ensure death from oxygen starvation within an hour.

Death would be neither violent nor traumatic, he claimed.

Nitschke said the bag was the result of desperation resulting from government rejection of "sensible" euthanasia legislation.

"People don't want to put bags over their heads, but we have governments - state and federal - that have painted people into desperate corners, and desperate people do desperate things."

Australia's Northern Territory in the mid-1990s passed the world's first euthanasia law. Nitschke helped four patients commit suicide under the legislation before the federal government overturned it.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia is now illegal throughout Australia.

A small group of pro-life campaigners attended Nitschke's launch in protest.

"[The bags] would have to be illegal because they've been made for a specific purpose of causing a person to suffocate, and they're being promoted for that purpose," said Graham Preston of Right to Life Australia.

Also critical of the activist was Senator Eric Abetz, a member of the federal cabinet, who said Nitschke's "continued push for the deliberate deaths of Australians is both wrong and callous."

Those working to prevent suicides also expressed concern about the message the death bag drive was sending in a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the Western world.

According to World Health Organization figures, an average of 14 people in every 100,000 commit suicide in Australia annually, compared to 11.3 in every 100,000 in the United States, and 7.4 in Britain.

'Not breaking the law'

Queensland premier Peter Beattie told lawmakers he found Nitschke's scheme offensive but doubted the bags - which are being made in a factory in the state capital, Brisbane - could be outlawed.

"If the government were to ban the bags it would also have to ban numerous products freely available today which could be used to inflict injury or cause death if consumers used them incorrectly - for example knives, bricks, razor blades ..."

Nitschke insisted he was not breaking the law. The bags would not come with instructions on how to use them, although those would be available on an Internet website.

The bags are also clearly labeled with warnings that they can cause death.

Pro-lifers have long been calling for legal action against Nitschke, who earlier this year oversaw a campaign in which a woman, Nancy Crick, who suffered from bowel cancer, took her life surrounded by friends and activists.

That incident took place in Queensland. State police investigating the death of Nancy Crick raided Nitschke's premises early this month, impounding computer records and other materials.

Nitschke at the time said the real aim of the police action was to avert the launch of the death bag project. Queensland police also attended this week's launch of the suicide bags, although no action has been taken against him.

At least one Australian, a 56-year-old woman in Adelaide described as having been in severe pain from several illnesses, is reported to have used one of the specially designed bags to kill herself earlier this month.

And an Anchorage newspaper last weekend reported that a terminally ill man in his 80s had used an "exit bag" ordered from Canada to take his life several days earlier.

According to Canadian anti-euthanasia campaigner Alex Schadenberg, the Alaskan case was the second known time a suicide bag obtained in Canada had been used to kill someone in another country.

Schadenberg's Euthanasia Prevention Coalition (EPC) has been trying without success to have law enforcement authorities in Canada investigate the production and distribution of the bag by Canada's Right to Die Network.

One of the reasons behind Nitschke's decision to make the bags locally was a clampdown by Australian authorities last year on the importation of the death kits from Canada.

The Canadian suppliers advertised the bag as a "self-deliverance" tool with an adjustable collar. An optional extra was a terry-cloth neckband "for added comfort and snugness of fit."

Also see earlier story:
Campaigners Warn Promotion Of Death Kits Could Affect Vulnerable Youths (Aug. 7, 2002)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow