Nutty Nitschke should be sidelined in death debate
As Australia readies itself for a fresh debate about the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, Dr Philip Nitschke is busy spreading his morbid gospel throughout Canada, where dozens of oldies are dying to attend his right-to-die seminars.
Most of them are not literally dying, no more so than the rest of us are in that daily incremental way. They’re a bit closer to their use-by-date, but they are generally hale and hearty. They have just decided that, when their time is almost at hand, they would like to go in a manner of their choosing and with dignity.
It’s a valid and widely-held human want. One pretty strong word of caution for these Canadian folks is that if it’s dignity they want, they should see another doctor.
The news report on Canada’s nationalpost.com of Nitschke’s visit this week began as follows:
“In the basement of Paul and Deltry Zollmann’s Ottawa home is the helium canister the elderly couple purchased from a party store a few years ago. The gas, they explain, is not leftover from a fete nor is it in anticipation of any usual kind of celebration: It is stowed downstairs in case one or both choose to someday end their life.”
It’s not explained in the piece how helium can end your life – perhaps your voice becomes so hilariously high-pitched that you die laughing – but for Dr Nitschke the helium canister represents the latest addition to his arsenal of zany life-ending devices, with which I’ve developed something of an obsession.
The most recent photograph I had seen of Dr Nitschke featured him posing next to an lpg bottle for a gas barbecue, with that trademark hangdog expression on his face, looking like a cross between the Grim Reaper and the guy from the Rays Outdoors commercial.
His other inventions include “the exit bag” – his term – which is a suffocating device which, with the simple addition of a Glad-style zip-lock mechanism, means you could probably leave gran in the driveway on bin night. He also invented the laptop of death – not his term - where with three taps of the space bar you can send yourself off to the hereafter with the administering of life-ending toxins into your bloodstream.
Setting aside his cartoonish Heath W Robinson stylings, the deeply zealous Nitschke seems professionally determined to ignore a couple of things. The first is that other members of his profession already know how to hasten or end a terminally ill person’s life without any of these morbid theatrics, and do so every day. The second is that there are many people in the community who want that process to become easier, even to be protected by law, but are left cold by Nitschke’s renegade approach.
In the mid-90s, Nitschke became the very public frontman in the campaign to let the Northern Territory’s euthanasia laws stand. When the Howard Government overrode that legislation, Nitschke burnt the bill outside the Senate entrance of Federal Parliament. It was about 3am and a bunch of us were covering it at the time. I remember Liberal Senator and stirrer Bill Heffernan walking past Nitschke at the time and shouting “Bad luck!” derisively as he went to find his Commcar.
If Nitschke is out of step with the Australian mainstream, so too are the likes of Heffernan who have an absolutist position that human life is sacrosanct, and that government should never create a power for doctors to up-end their Hippocratic Oath by ending lives instead of saving them.
The manner in which this debate has re-emerged is certainly left-field. There was no public debate during the election campaign. It has come about purely as a result of Labor’s formal alliance with the Greens, and the determination of Senator Bob Brown, a past defender of Nitschke, to place it on the national agenda.
Whatever its origins, there is string evidence that the public is overwhelmingly happy about that. A national survey by Auspoll last month found a massive 76 per cent of Australians supported voluntary euthanasia. As Auspoll CEO Ross Neilson wrote on The Punch, it’s hard to get that level of voter support for a tax cut.
If the euthanasia movement is to succeed it must this time distance itself from Nitschke and his ilk and find a much more moderate and mature figure to spearhead the debate. The likes of Heffernan, who just want the issue to go away, should be encouraging him back from Canada as soon as possible.
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