In November of 2017, the parliament of Victoria passed legislation that would make assisted suicide legal for individuals suffering from painful terminal illness. People in desperate need of the service, however, will need to wait until mid-2019 before the legislation comes into effect. Once enforced, these laws will make Victoria the only state in Australia where euthanasia is legal.
This is indeed a momentous event in Australian history, but what if I told you that it’s not the first time assisted dying was made legal in this country? What if I told you that not only was euthanasia made legal in another state for a brief time in the 90’s, but that is was an Australian doctor who became the first medical practitioner in world history to perform a legally assisted suicide?
That state was the Northern Territory, and that doctor is the controversial Phillip Nitschke, AKA “Doctor Death” as dubbed by the Australian media, a man whose involvement with the world’s first legally assisted death drove him to the forefront of euthanasia advocacy.
The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act (ROTI Act) was officially enforced in the Northern Territory on the 1st July 1996. Dr Nitschke assisted in the suicide of four patients in total before the act was eventually nullified by the Australian Parliament with the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997. Since then, Nitschke has effectively been the spokesperson for pro-euthanasia activism worldwide.
But just how exactly has this man influenced the delicate debate surrounding assisted suicide?
Nitschke’s views on euthanasia may seem like the standard fair for any left-wing individual at first; that a person of sound mind should have the right to refuse treatment or request suicide to end prolonged suffering brought on by terminal illness. But Dr Nitschke pushes these views to the extreme, going so far as to say that euthanasia should also be made available to elderly people who simply want to end their lives before they become senile or infirm. Nitschke has even stated that he believes any adult of sound mind should have access to painless, ‘peaceful’, methods of suicide, regardless of their physical health. He believes that the individual should have complete control over their death just as they should have complete control over their life.
Nitschke even published a book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook (2007), which gives clear instructions on what drugs to take and methods to use in order for you to peacefully end your own life. Focusing mostly on spreading information about the drug he calls the ‘peaceful pill’, otherwise known as Nembutal; an over-the-counter drug still legal in certain countries that, if taken in high doses, causes death by respiratory arrest. The book is officially banned in Australia and New Zealand, something Dr Nitschke sees as a blatant attack on his freedom of speech.
The aforementioned book is one of the biggest points of controversy regarding Nitschke, as there where two cases in which young people, Joe Waterman (25) and Lucas Taylor (26), ended their lives after purchasing the book online. Nitschke says the young men lied about their age; the website explicitly states that only persons aged 50 and above should buy the book, but also made the blunt argument that the risk of young people getting their hands on the book was necessary in order to help the elderly and seriously ill.
But the controversy doesn’t stop there.
Nitschke’s international euthanasia advocacy organization, Exit International, manufactured numerous “exit bags” for sale in Australia in 2002. These plastic bags were designed with draw strings to pull them tight around a person’s neck whilst inhaling inert gas, such as nitrogen, in order to commit suicide quickly, painlessly and in a fashion that their website claimed was ‘undetectable’ if the bag was removed from the body before being discovered. He also created a device called the CoGen (or Co-Genie) a device that generates carbon monoxide which is then inhaled through a face mask apparatus.
In 2009, Nitschke created a barbiturate testing kit, a chemical kit designed to test the authenticity of the Nembutal bought from places like Mexico that arrive without labels. The outrage over this product was so great that Dr Nitschke was actually arrested and detained for questioning in New Zealand when he arrived there to publicly launch the kit.
In 2012, in a rather audacious move, Nitschke started a “beer-brewing” company, Max Dog Brewing, for the admitted sole purpose of legally importing large quantities of nitrogen gas cannisters into Australia. The company circumvented euthanasia laws by claiming that the gas could be used for brewing, or alternatively for a quick and painless death if the customer so desired. Naturally, such a move provoked many officials and even led to a two-and-a-half-year criminal investigation levelled at Nitschke after two Australians used the gas to end their lives in 2014. Nitschke was not charged.
2017 was the year that marked Nitschke’s most ambitious announcement, the Sacro Machine, a 3D printed suicide capsule large enough for one person. The capsule will have a touchpad inside which will give users full control as to when they activate the lethal dose of nitrogen to commit suicide. So, to call Dr Phillip Nitschke controversial is almost an understatement.
Religious arguments aside, one of the main criticisms pointed at Nitschke is his apparent betrayal of the Hippocratic oath; ‘do no harm’. Whilst he would argue that it’s the patient carrying out the act under the supervision of the doctor, not the doctor performing the act directly (unless the patient is incapable of free movement). Medical practitioners in fields such as palliative care have countered by stating that it’s the doctor’s responsibility to improve quality of life rather than facilitate its end. Nitschke has responded to such opinions by stating that “It seems we demand humans to live with indignity, pain and anguish whereas we are kinder to our pets when their suffering becomes too much. It simply is not logical or mature. Trouble is, we have had too many centuries of religious claptrap.”
With legal euthanasia on the horizon for the state of Victoria, does Phillip Nitschke’s unapologetic views help or hinder people’s attitudes towards the subject? Do you believe that any and all adults of sound mind should have ready access to assisted suicide? Do you believe that banning a book that gives instructions on safe suicide methods is a violation of freedom of speech? Do you believe that improving quality of life should be the bigger concern for medical practitioners, for patients? These are just some of the very difficult and complex questions we need to start asking ourselves moving forward, as the debate around euthanasia is far, far from over.