Seriously ill should have the choice to exit
DISCUSSION of death and dying is still something of a taboo in our society.
But, as Australia’s best-known voluntary euthanasia activist Philip Nitschke argues, patients who are seriously ill deserve to have a choice about how to exit this world. That is perhaps why this medico has spent years developing peaceful and reliable methods designed to give dignity and choice to those whose physical suffering has become too much to bear.
What the good doctor never banked on is the reaction of the Australian Health Professionals Regulatory Authority. In August, AHPRA launched an investigation to determine if Nitschke was a “fit and proper person” to hold medical registration in this country. This is because a complaint alleged he had “developed, marketed and are (sic) selling an apparatus solely used for the purpose of suicide”.
Since 1996, when the Northern Territory passed the world’s first law on voluntary euthanasia, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, Nitschke has slogged it out, lobbying politicians as well as creating contraptions to facilitate peaceful passing.
Nitschke’s first suicide device was something called The Deliverance Machine. Following the lead of the American right-to-die trailblazer Jack Kevorkian, who made machines such as the “Mercitron” and the “Thanatron”, Nitschke explains that he wanted to make a machine the patient could control. Nitschke says that, far from it being about doctor-assisted dying, he wanted to remove himself from the immediate vicinity of the person, thereby making way for a patient to make the ultimate decision.
The Deliverance Machine ticked all the boxes. While the doctor would insert the cannula into the patient’s vein, the patient – via a laptop computer – would control the activation of the lethal drugs. The laptop software asked three fairly blunt questions, the last of which was: “In 15 seconds you will be given a lethal injection . . . press ‘Yes’ to proceed.”
My understanding is that four people used this machine before federal parliament overturned the NT law in early 1997. The original Deliverance Machine now rests in the British Science Museum in London, while a replica can be found at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.
While Nitschke’s inventions have evolved over the years, Australia’s voluntary euthanasia laws certainly have not. Even though suicide is not a crime, assisting a suicide carries a range of penalties from five years’ jail in Victoria to life imprisonment in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The other states lie somewhere in between.
These legal obstacles to voluntary euthanasia seem only to have strengthened Nitschke’s resolve to ensure that, at the end of their lives, the seriously ill have choice. While Nitschke can still be found traipsing door to door in Parliament House, he is also increasingly preoccupied with what might be called the technologies of death. One of his newest inventions concerns a system by which a person can use an inert gas such as nitrogen to die by hypoxia (low oxygen). Nitschke describes this method as akin to what happens when a plane depressurises. Everyone looks like they have gone to sleep. They seem peaceful and there is no blood and gore. He also claims this method is reliable.
In selling the cylinders (all proceeds flow directly to his non-profit organisation Exit International), the doctor knows he is treading a fine line in terms of the law. When quizzed, Nitschke is careful to point out that, on its own, a nitrogen cylinder is not a suicide apparatus. And he’s right, at least technically. The other vital equipment is a plastic bag and some connecting rubber tubing. The latter, Nitschke says, is something people must supply themselves. As he puts it, DIYD – Do It Yourself Dying – keeps everyone safe from the law.
Besides, he says, most people will never use the nitrogen. They simply want to know it is there in the cupboard should their health turn bad. Most are reassured they possess an insurance policy for the future. This is a sentiment I support. As I’ve written elsewhere, while I’m not particularly scared of dying I am horrified at the thought of leaving my loved ones behind. That terrifies me.
Until the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to be able to report that even though I soon turn 68 my health has held out quite well. I am now informed this may not be the case. Hence I’d quite like to have one of Nitschke’s nitrogen cylinders stored away in my garage, just in case.
Actually, I’m grateful someone has thought out an option for a death that is reliable and peaceful, and that if and when the time arrives I can organise myself, without the need of intervention from my wife and daughter.
So why is AHPRA investigating? Nitschke says he feels this is a quasi-religious, political witch-hunt. He points out that the complainant, Paul Russell, is one of his more vocal church-based opponents. That Russell held the Democratic Labor Party’s number one spot for the Senate in South Australia at the last federal election suggests Nitschke may have a point.
For a person who, within the context of the voluntary euthanasia debate, has made his name and reputation from the invention of suicide machines and helping the terminally ill, and who as a result has been the recipient of numerous humanitarian awards, being “fit and proper” seems to be precisely what Nitschke is.
Surely AHPRA ought to conclude the same. And surely they should take cognisance of the fact that, in a poll conducted last year, 85 per cent of Australians supported voluntary euthanasia. It’s a tough subject and sometimes uneasy to talk about, but in a democratic society we should be able to choose how we die. I know I want to do so gracefully.
Professor Ross Fitzgerald is the author of My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, now available as an e-book.
The Weekend Australian November 17-18, 2012 , Inquirer p 20.