Websites Promoting Suicide Should Be Outlawed, Some Say

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - In a move that could hinder the efforts of fringe euthanasia advocates, a charity in Britain is pushing for the government to act against Internet websites promoting suicide.

Citing Australia as a possible model to follow, the suicide prevention group Papyrus wants the British government to outlaw the hosting and transmission of suicide-promoting websites.

"Child pornography, sexual grooming of children and racism are all illegal and can be dealt with by regulatory bodies," the organization said in a campaign leaflet.

"However, there remains a danger area which currently is not clearly illegal in this country and does not fall within the remit of any regulatory body -- websites and chatrooms which can encourage the vulnerable to take their own lives."

Applicable British law, which predates the Internet, outlaws aiding, counseling or inciting someone to take their own life, but prosecutions are dependent on proving a link between the information provided by the accused person and the act of suicide.

Papyrus coordinator Paul Kelly, whose teenager son died in a website-related suicide in 2001, said there was a lack of awareness of the role played by the Internet in promoting suicide.

Papyrus says young people can be particularly vulnerable: They tend to use the Internet a lot, and if experiencing depression or other adolescent problems could be endangered by sites encouraging suicide.

Typing relevant search terms into an Internet search engine brings up thousands of websites, ranging from bizarre death cults offering explicit directions for suicide and chatrooms where the relative merits of different methods are discussed, to more mainstream "right-to-die" organizations.

In countries including Britain, the U.S., Japan and South Korea, investigators have linked suicides to specific websites, and in some cases, legal threats have prompted sites to remove some offending material or shut down.

'Everybody's right'

Australia is one country that has taken clear legal steps to outlaw using the Internet to promote suicide, a step largely prompted by the activism of Dr. Philip Nitschke, one of the most controversial figures in the pro-euthanasia world.

A decade after helping four patients to kill themselves under the world's first euthanasia law (the law in Australia's Northern Territory subsequently was overturned by the federal government in Canberra), Nitschke continues to hold workshops providing what he calls "end of life information."

He says his mostly ill and elderly patients should be able to access such information.

Nonetheless, Nitschke has publicly questioned whether being terminally-ill should be a prerequisite for having the "right" to end one's life. His Exit International website's tagline is "A Peaceful Death is Everybody's Right."

Nitschke has also investigated a range of suicide methods, including asphyxiation devices of various kinds and what he calls the "peaceful pill" - a lethal homemade cocktail comprising easily available ingredients.

After various attempts to restrict his activities, including the removal of two barbiturates popular with euthanasia advocates from a medical prescription list, the Australian government in January this year introduced a new law making it a crime to use the Internet or phone to encourage suicide.

Convictions under the Suicide Material Offences Act can bring a fine of around $90,000 for an individual, and up to $370,000 for an organization.

In justifying the need for the legislation, the government cited two expert studies into the role of the Internet in promoting suicidal behavior.

A 1997 study published in the International Association for Suicide Prevention's journal, Crisis, looked at interactive suicide notes involving people who later committed suicide, and demonstrated the influence of the Internet on those who wanted to share their ideas and thoughts about suicide.

A 1999 study on suicide attempts, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry showed the risk of having access to online suicide methods.

Nitschke reacted to the legislation by moving his website to a New Zealand-based hosting company, although he continues to work and campaign in Australia.

Two weeks ago, a state lawmaker in South Australia used parliamentary privilege to deliver a speech on euthanasia, during which she gave details on how to commit suicide. They included the advice that Australians traveling to the U.S. could cross the border into Mexico and buy Nembutal, a popular suicide drug, for about $30. "It isn't detectable by sniffer dogs, and it has a long shelf life," said Sandra Kanck.

The lawmaker took the stepto highlight the legislation, which she opposes.

Normally, the unedited parliamentary record would have been made available on the Internet. But doing so in this case would have broken the new law, and the South Australian parliament took the unusual step of striking Kanck's speech from the record.

Nitschke promptly posted the speech on his website, saying it was "considered and balanced, and explained in detail the problems caused by the federal government's attempt to suppress end of life information."

Nitschke, who has co-written a booklet giving instructions for making his "peaceful pill," took part in an international "right-to-die" conference in Toronto, running from Thursday through Sunday.

Ironically, Sunday was World Suicide Prevention Day.

See Also:
Activist Targeted In Effort To Curb Internet Promotion Of Suicide (April 7, 2003)
Activist Wonders, Why Limit Suicide Option To The Terminally-Ill? (Jan. 14, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow