Once again euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitschke is playing games with the law. Today he’s holding a meeting in Hobart to instruct listeners in the finer details of how to dispatch themselves quickly and painlessly. 

Nitschke and his suicide kit

Dr Nitschke has become an Olympian at skating on thin legal ice. For years he has been pirouetting around Australian police after friends of his received a few words of friendly advice and killed themselves. He was recently grilled by immigration officials in the UK before he was allowed to do a whistle-stop tour for geriatric crowds around the country. He’ll be touring the US in September. 

Because he is not actually killing people, just instructing them on how they can kill themselves, he appears to be acting within the letter of the law.

On Nitschke’s current tour, he is demonstrating a simple test of the effectiveness of Nembutal, a lethal barbiturate. You can’t obtain Nembutal in Australia, so he advises his groupies to go to Mexico, where it can be obtained over the counter.

But the odourless, colourless liquid could be a fake or could have lost its potency. Nitschke’s diagnostic test will ensure that it is still lethal.

Tasmanian politicians have ducked for cover as Nitschke’s visit approaches. Health Minister Lara Giddings says that it is none of her business: “If and when there was an allegation that Dr Nitschke had actually broken Tasmanian law it would be a matter for Tasmania Police to investigate.”

Nick McKim, the leader of the Greens, is the sponsor of a private member’s bill to legalise euthanasia in the Apple Isle. Astonishingly, he hasn’t said Boo. Or, rather, he relayed a half decibel Boo through the Hobart Mercury: “We are not associated with anything Dr Nitschke does. What Dr Nitschke does meets a need in the community. My Bill is designed to meet the same need but in a carefully regulated and safeguarded way.”

Why don’t Tasmanian politicians have the guts to tell voters that this Pied Piper of death is possibly the most dangerous man in Australia?

The highest dimension of a politician’s vocation is to create a society in which people feel that they have something to live for. Palliative care has improved so much nowadays that legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide are intended more for people with unbearable lives than with unbearable pain. What Nitschke is really doing is retailing do-it-yourself death for people whom the politicians have failed, people who feel lonely, despondent, unwanted and useless. 

And that’s not all. A few years ago Nitschke wrote a book with Fiona Stewart, Killing Me Softly, in which he unveiled the full scope of his vision for euthanasia. The potential beneficiaries of his work extend far beyond the white-haired old dears who toddle along to his suicide workshops.

One of them is Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan. End-of-life care is expensive, Nitschke mused in his book. If voluntary euthanasia lopped a mere six months off the lives of ailing elderly people, immense savings would result:

One can but wonder when a government will have the guts to stop digging the fiscal black hole that is their ever-deepening legacy for future generations. While the enabling of end-of-life choices will not fix the economic woes of the next forty years, it would not hurt, given half a chance. 

So the next time you hear a government minister trying to argue why this or that payment or welfare program for single mothers or war veterans must be cut, counter their argument with their fiscal irresponsibility on end-of-life choices.

He also advocated voluntary euthanasia for “the troubled teen” and involuntary euthanasia for seriously ill newborns. Another possible clientele is prisoners—at least those who feel that life behind bars is literally the living end. Voluntary euthanasia, mused Nitschke in Killing Me Softly, may be the “last frontier in prison reform”.

McKim won’t embrace Nitschke because the man is clearly, um, unusual. But he won’t denounce him either because he would have to prove that his “carefully regulated” euthanasia won’t turn into Nitschke’s dark dream of death on demand. If overseas experience has proved anything, it is that it is easy to legalise euthanasia but very hard to regulate it.

Statistics from the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since 2001, support this. When the figures for 2005 were released, the health minister was exultant because 80% of doctors had reported their euthanasia deaths. This means that 20% hadn’t. Furthermore, it seems that doctors there are switching from lethal injections to “terminal sedation”, or death from starvation and dehydration under heavy sedation. This is basically the same, but involves less paperwork. Dutch doctors, it seems, hate paperwork. No doubt Australian ones do, too. But there can be no regulation without paperwork.

Furthermore, Dutch doctors—like Philip Nitschke—enjoy the thrill of skating on thin ice. Now they are openly euthanasing babies, even though it is clearly against the law. In neighbouring Belgium, euthanasia has also been legalised. Significantly, the first reported death defied the carefully drafted regulations.

Astonishingly, Nick McKim opposes studying his death-with-dignity bill in a Parliamentary committee where some of these issues can be raised. “Delaying a debate [in Parliament] will not make the decision any easier, but it will certainly condemn some terminally ill Tasmanians to an agonising and humiliating death which they could be spared if my Bill is debated in a more timely manner,” he declared in a press release.

McKim says that all the necessary information is already in the public area. This is nonsense. The last time that the Tasmanian Parliament debated euthanasia was more than a decade ago. Much has changed since then. MPs need to be briefed so that they can make an informed, not an emotional decision.

And who better to inform Tasmanians than Philip Nitschke? After all, no one has done more to advance the cause of euthanasia in Australian than he has. And—back in 1997 under the Northern Territory’s short-lived euthanasia act—he was the first doctor in the world to legally euthanase someone. He knows what he is talking about. So why does Nick McKim want to clap him in a cone of silence?

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    • iansand says:

      12:28pm | 18/06/09

      Mercy killings occur every day, in every hospital in Australia, protected by the hollow rubric of a death as a by product of palliative care.  Resisting legislation such as that passed in the Northern Territory means that these killings occur at the discretion and risk of treating physicians and medical staff.  The NT legislation would have ensured a standard, well understood, procedure for euthanasia instead of the furtive charade preferred by Senator Cook and his cohorts.

    • Walt says:

      01:45pm | 18/06/09

      Who is Senator Cook?  The author of the article is Dr Michael Cook, the editor of the on-line magazine MercatorNet.  See how easily readers are confused.  Wait till they read Nick McKim’s euthansia bill.

      A survey widely published this week indicated that Australians rank politicians amongst the ‘10 most distrusted professions’.  And yet some people are willing to allow a politician to come up with an euthanasia bill.  Folly indeed.

    • Frank McCabe says:

      01:48pm | 18/06/09

      iansand is absolutely correct with his comment. There would be no medical practitioner or qualified nurse in Australia who could not plead guilty to upping the dose of morphine when the the end is near.

    • dianna says:

      01:48pm | 18/06/09

      We do euthanase today. I have helped people die in dignity with medicaton to alleviate pain, spare the discomfort and speed the process up. its called morphine and it is given in hospitals all the time under the discretion of the health carers.

    • scott lewis says:

      02:02pm | 18/06/09

      I will listen to these anti euthanasia people after they have experienced something similar to what i have and that is their terminally ill parent asking their son if they could help them die. And then have to deny their poor mothers wish and continue to see her suffer. To deny this request is cruel and i defy anyone who says otherwise.

    • Yvette says:

      02:18pm | 18/06/09

      Frank: I take exception to your comment. I am a registered nurse who was worked in both palliative care and in nursing homes. Never once have I been guilty of increasing the morphine dose of a dying patient, or taking any other measures to hasten their death. How dare you suggest that all nurses and doctors would have their professional judgement and ethical practice impaired by a misguided “sense of compassion” that would see the life of their patient ended sooner than it would naturally take place.
      Most doctors and nurses have dedicated their professional lives to the healing and recovery of their patients, and preserving their lives.
      Just because it is possible for doctors and nurses to abuse their access to lethal drugs, it doesn’t mean that they do or should.

    • Ben says:

      02:29pm | 18/06/09

      “Why don’t Tasmanian politicians have the guts to tell voters that this Pied Piper of death is possibly the most dangerous man in Australia?” Dude, our politicians can barely managing walking and breathing at the same time…

      Euthanasia in Australia is an inevitability. Either the stoic powers that be will fold under overwhelming public opinion, or they’ll slowly die off, one by one, in pain and discomfort…

    • Joe says:

      02:54pm | 18/06/09

      I remember when Nitschke debated Bishop Anthony Fisher on Euthanasia at Sydney Uni. After getting really worked up Nitschke ranted that we need the legislation changed now. But then went on to say he would just break the current legislation anyway. So he doesn’t respect the law anyway. Why is he so keen to try and change it. He comes across as a very bitter man.

    • Stuart says:

      03:39pm | 18/06/09

      I remember that debate too Joe, how stacked it was against Philip Nitschke and how he must have been the only Atheist in the room and how the good boy Bishop had no arguments when one is a true non believer ...

    • merryn.partridge says:

      05:52pm | 18/06/09

      As a devout Aetheist and dedicated health care professional; I am a firm believer in voluntary euthanasia (operative word being VOLUNTARY - people are free to take it OR leave it). I admire Dr Nitschke’s tenacity in campaigning for this controversial cause and believe the image of him projected in this article is extremely unfair.
      Morphine (amongst a myriad of other drugs) is used to alleviate pain and suffering but is not as easily accessed or abused as you all seem to believe. For any medical professional practicing in today’s litigious society, it presents an extreme risk to their reputation and registration with governing bodies. The time is NOW for structured legislation and protocols governing euthanasia. I believe that as we all have the inherent right to live with dignity and make informed choices, we all have the same right to die with dignity (hopefully soon by informed choice). We already have the ability to voluntarily opt out of resuscitation procedures, so this is just the next step.
      I think if most of you have seen what I have seen (I shall not describe the dying phases of terminal illness here because words will not do it justice), your opinion may differ a little. We treat our pets better!

    • David says:

      09:39pm | 18/06/09

      The terminally ill should not travel to Mexico, they may catch swine flu.

    • DS says:

      01:49am | 19/06/09

      There’s a world of difference between artifically extending a person’s life and terminating it. Yes, there comes a point where we should stop trying to prolong things - this is not euthanasia, and is a big part of what palliative care is about: making the last days of a person as comfortable and pain free as possible.

      But the thing that has always bothered me about this discussion is how a person’s “quality of life” is measured in their own individual pain & suffering ~ rather than in the quality of the relationships they have, and the amount of care & love they still experience and can or may give in the midst of it to and with others.

    • Dennis of Howrah says:

      09:20am | 19/06/09

      What an informative, educational and even entertaining session provided by Dr Philip Nitschke in Hobart on Thursday 18 June. I am a 60 year old in good health, but do believe in my right to plan for and think about a time when I might want to end my life - I think most/all adults should think about that end line.

      Every person should at least have access to the information, access to the option of self choice and access to the means of achieving their choice without putting others at risk or unwanted outcomes.

      Dr. Nitschke was clear, unemotional, but compassionate and had the benefit of a life experience that could help Tasmania and the Nick McKim Bill (which I support in principle).

      To my way of thinking the Government (State and National) should assist :

      •  People to have the option of self choice in determining end of life for themselves,
      •  Legislation and processes that enable rather than inhibit that right and choice and self determination
      •  Remove, by education,  information and legislation the emotive stigma surrounding the choice of ending one’s life

      In what purports to be a caring society,  the rights of an individual, the choices that individual takes and the expectation of community empathy should be the three guiding lights – whether one chooses a life ending option or a life continuing option.

      Scaring people with boogey men or manipulation of words is not helpful to anyone.

    • Wazza says:

      09:46am | 19/06/09

      M Cook, just another puppet for the Catholic Church and its rhetoric on life in 2009, using 2000 year old attitudes

    • Kathleen Delaney says:

      12:38pm | 19/06/09

      USA, home of religious fundamentalists, killers of doctors who perform abortion at any stage, creationists etc., etc:  yet two States,  Oregon and Washington, have right to die legislation in force and there seems little active opposition. Interestingly, in Oregon, the first State to have this legislation, only comparatively small numbers have taken advantage of its availability. Many of those who request the medication are yet to use it. They feel happier knowing that it is available, should they wish to. I had no choice in being born; I don’t see any reason why I should not have the right to choose the time of my dying.

    • Winston Jen says:

      01:28pm | 19/06/09

      1.  There is no difference between refusing treatment and taking Nembutal, especially if that treatment is artificial feeding or a respirator.

      2.  If life is always worth living, as the pro-lifers continually espouse, why is the suicide rate so high, especially among the elderly?

      3.  If the pro-lifers are so pro-life, why didn’t they stop Nancy Crick or Lisette Nigot from ending their lives?

    • Veuve says:

      04:40pm | 19/06/09

      Suicide is not illegal.  The doctor can tell people how to do it if they want to listen.  I can list a number of ways of committing suicide I’ve thought of over the years.  I have depression and am entitled to put myself out of misery if I choose.  I believe it’s an individual’s right to decide how they want to die and when.  With over half the population believing people should be able to decide for themselves the outraged right to lifers may have to swallow the bitter pill of not being able to bully people into following their antiquated views much longer.

    • Steven Mendelson says:

      04:22pm | 21/06/09

      I think that the most important thing you are overlooking is that, one day, you will be facing your own death, as we all will.

      I hope that, when the time comes you have a peaceful and pain free death Michael. But just in case you don’t, if you are having a death with nausea and pain, or if you are struggling for each breath I hope that someone will offer you the CHOICE that you would deny others.

      What you offer us is the same old, same old where those that can afford it or are well connected can have an under the counter death, facilitated by a doctor, without any regulation. The rest of us can just grin and bear it.

      Time will tell and it will always be a choice to have a suffering death. Hope that you change your mind by then.

      Steven Mendelson

    • Franky says:

      09:32am | 22/06/09

      I find myself agreeing with Michael Cook. Having observed state-operated systems for years, I’ve a real fear there will be a greater emphasis on killing for convenience than dying with dignity.

    • Luke Tubnor RN says:

      12:14pm | 28/07/09

      Firstly, Micheal sounds like he has little empathy for the persons involved, rather cold through out. I think his religious affiliation may be blurring his perspective. Mother Teresa had similar ‘good’ intentions with some real bad outcomes for the nameless who were living with the pain.


      This should not happen in a age when we have options on how to avoid it. We (meaning I and others)in the medical industry, communities and branches of politics need to understand what is best for our patients by listening to them.

      To all those out there who would block such a decision made by a family member or friend - please stop being so selfish as to lengthen your time with that kin or mate, only to have them endure unfathomable pain and potential embarrassment, something that removes their dignity. We need this legislated so as to provide peace of mind to those who seem to need it the most, while providing a framework that medical staff can work from with out fear of criminal charges being pressed, while also having processes in place to query the cases which are questionable, which are a sad inevitability with such a service.


    • Vishnu says:

      08:57am | 08/02/12

      *The right to die in this curntoy is a very hard position to take!,You have to look at the corruption that could occur if this point of view was made legal.Personally for me I’m a high level Quadraplegicdependent on carer’s & a ventalator!, sure you get depressed and say things like I want to die, I cant take the pain, I’ve had enough, then you eventually get passed that & relies hey there is things I can do,  I can have relief if I need that,there’s certain things I’m able to do still, & I’m strong.not everybody is strong but there are things out there to help everyone’s personal journey,this been been my experience ,hope this help’scheers*J Man says… It’s a big help Mill and thanks for your contribution.I am in awe of people like yourself who despite your lot still have a positive outlook. As you said you tend to focus on what you CAN do rather than dwell on what you can’t and there are many able bodied people who could take a leaf out of your book.That said and obviously I don’t know any more details of your situation than those you have published here but I would say that you still have what some people might call quality of life. Do you think that it is possible to reach the point where there is no quality of life and death might be a better alternative or do you think that really it’s all down to attitude? I’m guessing the latter.

    • Mukesh says:

      12:42pm | 10/02/12

      Life is eterxmely complex when it comes to end ing a life.Suicide is a option for people who are physically enabled but not for some disabled people.When life gets too hard and mentally people give up,then it becomes a serious problem ……keep taking Drugs to numb the pain and thoughts.You need a lot of support from loved ones to encourage the need to keep living.Big question but no real answers to say you can live or terminate your life just because you want to.J Man says… Yep, like I said, It’s a tough one

    • June Henderson says:

      10:12am | 24/06/12

      A change in legislation to allow physician assisted dying to patients in intolerable situations for which there is no cure is all about CHOICE for the patient. If you don’t like it, don’t act on it.  Don’t let the hierarchy of the church dictate to the masses. Let those whose cross it is to bear be the ones who benefit from a compassionate law.

    • Richard says:

      08:35pm | 30/07/12

      Michael Cook is just another one of those patronizing citizens who want to dictate how the rest of us live and die.  This group seem to think they have a monopoly on wisdom and morals and the rest of us are mentally incapable of making our own decisions.
      Michael please try hard to understand that we really don’t care if you wish to endure whatever cruel path nature has in store for you when dying. That is your choice.  Just leave others to make theirs.


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