June 28th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Counting Stalin's victims 50 years on

EDITORIAL: Australia's population challenge

PACIFIC: Solomon Islands: nightmare in paradise

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Why the Crean-Beazley issue is unresolved

ENVIRONMENT: Climate scientists reject Kyoto Protocol

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Labor mates / Night to remember / Heart of darkness / Intervention

EUTHANASIA: Stopping Australia's Doctor Death

Sugar price decline (letter)

Free trade deal and local shareholders (letter)

TIMOR L'ESTE: Looming food shortage in East Timor

AGRICULTURE: National water trading plan questioned

FAMILY LAW: Canadian court changes definition of marriage

EDUCATION: The problem with boys ...

South African economic miracle?

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Stopping Australia's Doctor Death

by Richard Egan

News Weekly, June 28, 2003
On April 13, 1999, Judge Jessica Cooper addressed Jack Kevorkian as she sentenced him to 10-25 years imprisonment for the second-degree murder of Thomas Youk:

"You had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did, and dare the legal system to stop you. Well sir, consider yourself stopped."

Kevorkian, on his own count, had helped bring about the deaths of 130 people between 1990 and 1999. He had been acquitted twice by Michigan juries on charges of assisted suicide. His appeals to the Michigan and US Supreme Courts have been denied and he remains in prison today.

As the corpses stack up who will stop Australia's own Dr Death, Phillip Nitschke?

Lethal injection

On September 25, 1996, Phillip Nitschke hooked up Bob Dent to his computerised lethal injection machine and Dent pushed the buttons which resulted in his death by Nembutal poisoning.

Dent was not the first of Nitschke's patients to die of an overdose. Two-28-year old Aboriginal men, Christopher Rex Dingo and Steven James Mallison had each died of a methadone overdose two days after Nitschke provided them with the drug, which was prohibited in the Northern Territory except for treating chronic pain.

Nitschke presided over the death by lethal injection machine of three more people before Kevin Andrews' Euthanasia Laws Act passed the Senate on March 25, 1997, putting an end to the Northern Territory's grim experiment with legalised murder of the terminally ill.

However, the body count did not stop there. Three weeks later, Nitschke killed Esther Wild by hooking her up to a so-called coma machine which brought about her death by slow overdose.

In 1998 Nitschke commenced running his euthanasia advisory clinics and explaining to those who attended how to commit suicide effectively. In November 1998 Nitschke claimed to have made videos of 15 assisted suicides which he had been involved with.

By January 2001, he claimed that of the almost 300 people who had attended his euthanasia clinics at least 40 had subsequently taken their own lives.

On January 20, 2001 Norma Hall killed herself by a liquid morphine overdose. Nitschke was staying in her home and had been advising her. She had earlier announced to the media her intention of committing suicide by giving up food and water. This began a series of public suicides in nearly all of which Nitschke was involved.

On May 22, 2002, Nancy Crick killed herself to the applause of a group of euthanasia supporters who had gathered to watch the spectacle. Only after an autopsy revealed that she no longer had bowel cancer did Nitschke admit that both Nancy and he knew this when they were publicising her proposal to commit suicide due to the pain of cancer.

Shirley Nolan, who had Parkinson's disease, killed herself in July 2002. Nitschke said he had advised Ms Nolan for two years before her death. Sandy Williamson, also a Nitchke patient, who had motor neurone disease also committed suicide that month.

Also in July 2002 Nitschke claimed that at least 10 people had killed themselves using the Exit Australia plastic bag of which he had organised the manufacture and distribution after Customs Minister, Chris Ellison, had stopped the importation of similar bags from Canada.

Subsequently, in August 2002 Jo Shearer, a 56-year-old woman with double scoliosis, killed herself with an exit bag.

Not terminally ill

By the end of 2002 four others who had attended Nitschke workshops and been advised by him committed suicide. None of the four was terminally ill or suffering from pain.

Syd and Marjorie Croft, a couple in their 80s who had attended three of the Nitschke workshops, killed themselves in a suicide pact in order to avoid bereavement.

Ruth, an 80-year-old woman whom Nitschke had spoken with about 10 times, killed herself because her vision was failing and she couldn't read. Lisette Nigot, whom Nitschke had counselled for two years through his Exit Australia workshops, killed herself because she had to give up travel and driving due to an inner ear problem.

Nitschke makes no apology for his involvement in affirming and instructing these people in how to end their lives. In an interview with National Review Online (June 5, 2001) he said:

"I do not believe that telling people they have a right to life while denying them the means, manner, or information necessary for them to give this life away has any ethical consistency.

"So all people qualify, not just those with the training, knowledge, or resources to find out how to 'give away' their life. And someone needs to provide this knowledge, training, or recourse necessary to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, [and] the troubled teen.

"If we are to remain consistent and we believe that the individual has the right to dispose of their life, we should not erect artificial barriers in the way of sub-groups who don't meet our criteria."

Nitschke continues to market the technology of death. He has come a long way since he strangled and then knifed a dog to death in 1963.

Although bumper stickers for sale at his conferences call for the right for people to be put down "like a dog" he now offers more sophisticated methods. He has promoted successively the "deliverance machine", the coma machine, the suicide tent, the exit bag and most recently the CO generator.

His oft-promised recipe for a "peaceful, suicide pill" has not yet materialised. And his death ship to offer euthanasia outside Australia's territorial waters has never been launched.

Drug of choice

Nembutal remains the Nitschke drug of choice. He used it in the Northern Territory killings. Now available only in veterinary surgeries, Nitschke encourages attendees at his workshops to befriend a vet. He spoke positively of one woman who seems to have either blackmailed or seduced a vet she once had a brief affair with into supplying her with Nembutal.

Despite his open promotion of suicide and his admission of "intimate association" in at least 20 deaths (June 2001), Nitschke remains registered to practise as a medical practitioner in every State of Australia. He has never been charged or prosecuted.

The Medical Board of Western Australia refused in July 2001 to instigate a formal inquiry despite acknowledging that a complainant has established that Dr Nitschke had at his workshops "disseminated information regarding the relative merits of various methods of committing suicide".

The Board asserted that "there is no evidence that Dr Nitschke counselled any person to commit suicide".

Nitschke's activities do three things: they instruct people in the methods of suicide, they help people obtain the means of committing suicide and most significantly, they validate the idea that suicide is not just acceptable but an heroic choice to be applauded.

Nitschke has expressed his admiration of Jack Kevorkian. He has also made it clear he wishes to avoid Kevorkian's legal fate. He is consciously seeking to avoid openly breaking the law against counselling "another to kill himself and thereby inducing him to do so" or "aiding another in killing himself".

If 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 penalise "instructing in the methods of suicide". Each State would need to pass such a law.

The Federal Government could play a role by passing a model law that could also include provisions to prevent the publication on the Internet of detailed instructions in suicide methods. There have been several recent tragedies in which young people have killed themselves following explicit instructions from how-to-suicide websites.

State and Federal Governments are working with the community to help prevent the 2,500 suicides that tragically occur each year in Australia.

Laws to stop Nitschke, and anyone like him, who wishes to glorify and promote suicide, are a necessary adjunct to these efforts.

  • Richard Egan

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