Dr Philip Nitschke -Australian Euthanasia Campaigner

An interview with Philip Nitschke published in Quadrant, October 2002, provides background information. The interviewer, Frank Devine, asked Dr Nitschke for some autobiographical information, "Are you married, for instance?"
"I have a partner. She is a doctor in Darwin. I was born in South Australia in 1947. Raised Lutheran, now atheist. My mother and father were both country schoolteachers. I did a science degree at Adelaide University and a PhD in physics at Flinders. Then I headed for the Northern Territory to help Vincent Lingiari [leader of an historic strike by Aboriginal stockmen] at Wave Hill station."

Nitschke remained in the Territory, working for the Parks and Wildlife Service until a bad accident put an end to that job. When he was thirty-five, he did a medical degree at Sydney University, headed back to the Territory and went into practice. He became deeply involved in the passage of the Territory's voluntary euthanasia legislation.

"Why was that?" asked Devine. "Had you had much experience of people suffering so terribly they wanted to die?"

"No. It wasn't as if I was motivated by my mother or father having a bad death, or anything like that. I became involved in the issue in its political aspect. I was annoyed by the opposition, especially the AMA, which said, "we don't want this law and will make sure it never works." I saw this as arrogance by the profession, because it was clear the public wanted the law."

He found twenty doctors who were willing to put their names to a newspaper advertisement supporting the legislation. The Bill passed by one vote and it was upheld as constitutional by the Territory Supreme Court by a two-to-one vote. The law came into effect on 1 July 1996 and Federal Parliament overturned it in March 1997.

Working as a GP who had done his term in anaesthetics, Nitschke says:

"Suddenly, in 1996, I started to have a new kind of patient, elderly, suffering from a variety of serious ailments and looking for help to end their lives...What I ended up doing was talking to these people about why they wanted to die and, essentially, just answering their questions."

When the voluntary euthanasia legislation became operative law, Nitschke built a "death machine" with which he assisted with the deaths of four people. He admits to having assisted with a great many more deaths. He explained how the machine worked:

"It was an arrangement by which a patient pressed a computer key three times, with a pause each time to reconsider his or her decision to die. The third touch released lethal drugs into the bloodstream. I had no wish to absolve myself of responsibility. It was I who placed the needle into a patient's artery, and prepared the drugs. I could have injected a lethal drug with my own hands. The law wanted me to come and be a killer, I suppose. But I didn't want to do that. I thought the patient should control the option to die. Also, I was not a family member. I was not a best friend. I did not want to occupy personal space that belonged to others."

The machine has since been acquired by and is currently on display in the British Science Museum in Kensington, London.

Since the voluntary euthanasia legislation was overturned in 1997, Nitschke formed the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation, later changed to Exit Australia and now called Exit International. Exit is Australia's foremost right-to-die organization.

In a June 5, 2001 interview with National Review Online, associate editor, Kathryn Jean Lopez asked Nitschke, "do you see any restrictions that should be placed on euthanasia generally? If I am depressed, do I qualify? If an elderly woman's husband dies and she says she no longer has anything to live for, would you help her kill herself? What about a troubled teen? Who qualifies? Who decides if a life is worth living?"

He replied:
"This [is a] difficult question [that] I will answer in two parts. My personal position is that if we believe that there is a right to life, then we must accept that people have a right to dispose of that life whenever they want. (In the same way as the right to freedom of religion has implicit the right to be an atheist, and the right to freedom of speech involves the right to remain silent).

I do not believe that telling people that 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, 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.

This would mean that the so-called "peaceful pill" should be available in the supermarket so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing. It's hard to imagine how such a development would affect society, but I believe the impact would not be as great as people fear.

I would argue that if suicide is legal, then advising, counseling, or assisting people to carry out this legal act should also be legal.

My guidelines for those whom I am prepared to assist are of course arbitrary. In this country, without protective legislation, I could do what I liked, or rather, what I could get away with. However, I choose to restrict myself to that group identified in the overturned legislation. I involve myself with terminally ill adults who are articulate, lucid, and not suffering from clinically treatable depression." Read the interview in full here.

Dr Nitschke has not limited his 'death counselling' to the terminally ill. This included a woman, named Nancy Crick, who made headlines when she announced on Australian television and internationally through her website that she would commit assisted suicide because she had terminal cancer. But when her autopsy showed she was cancer free, Nitschke admitted he and Crick had known all along that she wasn't dying but pronounced that medical fact "irrelevant" because she wanted to die.

Another example of his willingness to help healthy people end their lives is highlighted by the documentary Mademoiselle and the Doctor, which is the story of Mademoiselle Nigot, a French-born Australian who did not wish to reach the age of eighty. She was not ill, wasn't in any pain and was not depressed. She consulted with Nitschke about how best to kill herself.

A BBC News story on Tuesday, 28 November, 2000 reported that "Dr Nitschke claims to still assist patients in ending their life, even though it is now illegal."

"He says he now feels like an abortionist in the 1950s, and advocates the prompt development of a suicide pill."

According to news accounts, Nitschke had a somewhat troubled childhood. As a young teen, he was deeply unhappy and, at the age of 15, he took out his frustrations by killing a neighbor's dog. He devised a plan in which he faked going to church on Sunday, then doubled back to the neighbor's house to strangle the dog. When the dog didn't die, he slit its throat with a knife.

The story has caused embarrassment to Nitschke over the years. But he has explained it by chalking it up to his immaturity. "I was very young; I just didn't have the world experience to be able to make good judgments," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "It was the ill-considered action of a child, " he says now.

Opponents to the legalisation of euthanasia point out that according to Nitschke's logic, a 15-year-old who kills a neighbor's dog is exhibiting the actions of a child who is too immature to make good judgments, but a child who decides to kill himself is, apparently, to be regarded as sufficiently mature to do so.

"Profile: Philip Nitzschke," Sydney Morning Herald, October 12, 1996 and Richard Yallop, "Truth and consequences," The Australian, May 30, 2002. www.internationaltaskforce.org