Suicide and Euthanasia

Assisted suicide is about helping a person to kill themselves. Euthanasia is where a doctor deliberately administers a lethal injection or drug to kill the patient. It can be voluntary or involuntary euthanasia.
  • Australian Dr Philip Nitschke is the leading advocate of assisted suicide in Australasia.
  • The Australian Medical Association has failed to have him "struck off" four times.
  • Several autopsies raised doubts about whether Dr Nischke's patients were terminally ill.
  • Dr Nitschke claims that the right to die should be generally available.
  • Euthanasia opponents maintain that hospices provide a humane, valid and ethical alternative.
  • In the Netherlands, euthanasia is believed to be widely unreported.
Suicide usually entails a physically healthy, but deeply depressed or despairing person, who wants to end their life. Euthanasia refers to a person who is usually terminally ill, fearful and seriously depressed. They want a doctor to end their life as soon as possible.

Both methods are strictly illegal in New Zealand, but there are repeated efforts by various organisations and campaigners to change public opinion and the law.

Assisted Suicide
The leading advocate for assisted suicide in Australia and New Zealand is Dr Philip Nitschke. He has generated considerable publicity with a succession of patients appearing on television pleading for the right to kill themselves, hopefully painlessly, with medical help.

Dr Nitschke is careful to avoid administering the fatal dose, he claims to be merely providing advice at his patient's request. The Australian Medical Association has unsuccessfully sought four times to have Dr Nitschke struck off, but failed because the patient administered the fatal injection, or drugs themselves.

In 2002, he claimed to be importing special suicide bags, called Exit Bags, that could be placed over the head and cut off oxygen.

In 2003, authorities at Sydney airport confiscated from Dr Nitschke a prototype death machine that generates carbon monoxide, which he had planned to take to the United States.

In 2004, it was announced that Dr Nitschke and some 'advisors' had developed a suicide pill that will provide a "peaceful, reliable and legal death." He announced his intention to hold workshops in Australia for Exit members, where they could learn to make their own "Peaceful Pills."

Generally, Dr Nitschke's patients have sought assisted suicide in the belief that they have a terminal illness and want to avoid prolonged suffering.

However, in several high-profile cases, autopsies revealed that the patients were not terminally ill, or actually had the cancer they believed they had. This raised questions about diagnosis and whether Dr Nitschke was focussing more on assisting the patient to die, than actually helping them.

Dr Nitschke has advocated that anyone who wants to (even teenagers) has a right to die, if they so wish, and should be assisted to do so painlessly as possible.

Voluntary Euthanasia
The patient requests or agrees to be killed by the doctor. The usual reasons are a terminal illness and the fear of enduring pain, dementia and further suffering.

This is strictly illegal, although surveys reveal that certain doctors will secretly administer euthanasia. Opponents of euthanasia argue that hospices provide a viable and ethical alternative, with specialist treatment for any pain.

In the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia within a set criteria, is legal. Cases have to be reported and statistics collected, but the true figure is considered to be higher, because some doctors do not report cases. They are reluctant to expose themselves to any possibility of future prosecution.

Manipulated Suicide
In his book Death as a Salesman: What's Wrong with Assisted Suicide American Brian Johnston claims: "One of the greatest dangers posed by legalizing assisted suicide is the subtle pressures it would bring to bear on the vulnerable."

Pointing out that history has shown us how, "if the climate is right, the persuasion would be - and has been - quite easy", Johnston says that "it is not just mass suicides like Heaven's Gate and Jonestown that show us the power of persuasion." He goes on to say:

"Much more subtle and pervasive messages have been responsible for instigating individual suicides. In many individual suicides there are social circumstances that have combined to convince individuals they are acting alone and arriving at their own conclusions, when in fact the depression, desire for death, and even the method employed are all the result of outside influences.

"These outside influences do not necessarily spring from intentional manipulation as was the case in Jonestown and Heaven's Gate. Often social circumstances, and the 'modeling' of suicide are enough to create a 'suicide cluster,' or as it is better known, the 'copycat' effect."