June 15th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The future of Telstra

Has the PM been misled on stem cell research?

Nationals' survival depends on new agenda

EUTHANASIA: Nancy Crick - what is the real story?

TRADE: Philippines bananas could cost Australian Government millions

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Insider dopesters / Democracy at work / The new lonely crowd

MEDIA: ABC's left-liberal Twilight Zone

Handling the boat people issue (letter)

Small business and superannuation (letter)

Drug summit in Port Macquarie(letter)

Going to war over trade

LAW: ICC report tabled in Parliament

DRUGS: WA to go ahead with cannabis toleration

DOCUMENTATION: Archbishop George Pell rebuts '60 Minutes' allegations

CLONING: truth and the middle ground

OPINION: Can the GST be wound back?

EAST TIMOR: After the celebrations, reality dawns

ASIA: China convulses but won't collapse

BOOKS: 'American Muslims: The New Generation'

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Nancy Crick - what is the real story?

by Dr David van Gend

News Weekly, June 15, 2002
Nancy Crick was not dying, was not terminally ill, nor did she have any trace of cancer. In fact, she was almost twice the body weight stated on her web site and gaining. And Nancy Crick did not die, naturally. She suicided, which avoids dying, avoids reading the final chapter of the human story for fear of what it might hold.

That fear is the key to understanding the "right to die" movement; it is the "afraid to die" movement. It is the "life has no meaning" movement. In Search for Meaning, Carolyn Jones accompanies a friend through her process of dying:

"The disfigurement of her illness was pitiful; it would have shocked no one if she had asked for death. But patiently she lived through her last days, until one evening, calmly, she took her last breath. It was a moment of heightened significance, almost excitement, certainly sacred. The sense was of a rite of passage safely traversed."


What a pitiful contrast to Mrs Crick's suicide - her family unable to bear being present to witness the self-killing. Utterly alone even in company, since no one can look suicide in the eye. A moment of debased insignificance, except in the minds of Euthanasia Society activists triumphing ghoulishly over their media coup.

Yet Nancy Crick has not died in vain. She has exposed her doctor, Philip Nitschke, as being cynical enough to do whatever it takes to manipulate public opinion, including the calculated deceit over her "terminal cancer". And more significantly, she flushed out an admission of his true philosophical agenda - quite simply, death on demand - with his assertion that it didn't matter whether she had cancer or not. You don't need cancer, you don't need to be dying or even suffering pain, you only have to desire death. Another pro-euthanasia doctor reluctantly admitted to me that even a healthy teenager who persistently asked for assisted suicide, after full medical assessment, had that right to assistance.

Now at least the public better understands the total package they are buying from Dr Nitschke if they support the alleged right to death on demand.

The second good thing to come from the Crick debate is the opportunity to reflect on the laws prohibiting assisted suicide, and to see them anew as necessary and to be upheld. The principle of justice involved is that no vulnerable person is to be put under the influence of another to choose death. The law deters involvement in another's suicide, not to make suicide a lonely affair, but because the involvement of any other person raises the possibility of malicious pressure being brought to bear to choose suicide.

Threatening pressure

For those who cannot believe in such malicious pressure, consider a letter sent to one of my patients by her sister only last week, to which I refer with permission.

It abuses my patient as a "no-hoper" who "should die", and blatantly demands all proceeds from her will. This is a patient not endowed with great self-esteem. Any debate on assisted suicide has to take into account the grim nature of some family relationships.

When the UK House of Lords rejected assisted suicide and euthanasia, they concluded:

"We are concerned that vulnerable people - the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed - would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to seek early death."

Protect the vulnerable

Likewise, the Canadian Supreme Court declared, "The responsibility of Government to protect vulnerable people from abuse outweighs any individual right to assisted suicide". That decision against assisted suicide was reaffirmed only last month by the highest courts in Britain and Europe. It is a just and necessary law.

While Mrs Crick was alive, our association declined to comment on her predicament, feeling that the more highly publicised her case was, the less private freedom she had to rethink and choose supportive care instead of suicide.

Now that Mrs Crick is dead, however, her death is the proper subject of police investigation and public comment. Dr Nitschke has declared this to be only the start of a series of staged suicides, of a campaign of "civil disobedience" to our laws on assisted suicide.

We feel that Dr Nitschke should be prosecuted for "counselling suicide", and made to learn that he, too, is under the rule of law. If his precedent of spectator suicide surrounded by family or friends or foes is tolerated, we will have made possible a new form of oppression of the weak by the malicious strong. That must be opposed, and the current restraining law upheld.

The Medical Board will no doubt be assessing whether Dr Nitschke has cared for his patient in a proper manner, which involves the duty to treat depression and strive to prevent suicide.

At the very least the Board should compel him to undergo formal training in palliative medicine, so he can be confident in easing the symptoms of advanced disease, not going with the death option through lack of medical experience.

Which raises the third and final good thing to come from the Nancy Crick debate.

It gives an opportunity for those of us who have trained in palliative medicine to remind people of the magnificent advances in the care of the dying, and encourage them away from the despair of suicide. It affords an opportunity also to correct misconceptions like those in Crispin Hull's recent Canberra Times article, where he states:

"Hitherto, euthanasia was usually a case of a doctor quite legally administering enough morphine to deal with pain that as an ‘unintended side effect' killed the patient."

The widespread superstitious notion that morphine kills patients must be corrected, as it undermines the confidence of patients and their families in palliative care.

Beneficial effects

Properly used, morphine exactly balances pain, with negligible residue of drowsiness and no capacity to shorten life.

It is thought indeed to prolong life by reducing physical stress and oxygen requirements - but then, the doctor has no interest in either prolonging or shortening the dying process. We aim only to ease suffering, accompanying patients while they die in their own good time.

As for Nancy Crick, she should still be alive. And Philip Nitschke should be prosecuted. Bizarre suicide scenes like theirs make bad law, and the law against assisting suicide must not move even one step towards a situation which would expose the mass of vulnerable old people to malicious involvement by others.

  • Dr David van Gend is Queensland spokesman for TRUST, a national alliance of doctors and lawyers opposing euthanasia and promoting palliative care.

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