The yellow bumper sticker on his suitcase says “I’d rather die like a dog” and if anyone knows how dogs die it’s Dr Philip Nitschke, who slit one’s throat when he was a teenager.

It's a gas, gas, gas: Darwin's Dr Death unveils another dignified exit strategy

It’s a story which Nitschke wishes would go away. But in the context of his latest snappy euthanasia slogan, plastered over his luggage as he was questioned in Heathrow this weekend, it’s one that is worth re-telling.

Nitschke has told it a few times in media profiles - reluctantly, because he is aware his critics regard it as a pointer to adult instability, rather than the isolated act of a homesick 15-year-old boarder sent to live in Adelaide with an abusive landlord whose barking dog was driving him mad.

“It got so grim there…you feel like killing the people involved and you know you can’t do that and you end up killing the dog,” Nitschke told Andrew Denton’s Enough Rope in 2007.

“So I killed the dog. And I didn’t set out to kill it in such a grim way. I mean I set out to kill the dog, and it turned out that the dog wasn’t easy to kill, so I ended up cutting its throat and killed it…When you’re 15, you do a lot of stupid things.

And I think it was just a really bizarre piece of behaviour and something that I am very embarrassed about, but it happened in that context and thank God I killed the dog and not the landlord.”

The landlord is probably pretty happy about it too.

A few years ago when Nitschke was spruiking his “exit bags” and a nifty laptop contraption where a few taps on the space bar would propel you into the hereafter, I joked in a column that it wouldn’t be long until he unveiled a human-sized slingshot where the irretrievably ill could be catapulted into the sea, such were the W. Heath Robinson stylings of his death machines.

Since then Nitschke has done all but that. Last December he posed for the cameras with a domestic barbecue gas bottle, explaining how it could be rigged up to provide a “dignified” exit - nothing sadly about whether you could go out Weber-style with the addition of hickory chips - and this week, he’s popped up in the UK championing the life-ending benefits of Nembutal.

His latest offering works on an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass basis, the emergency being that you’re not dead. Once you’ve obtained your Nembutal - from a reputable purveyor in Tijuana - you mix it with a special solution to make sure that the drug the Meskins sold you actually is Nembutal, and that it hasn’t passed its use-by date. It then works out exactly how much of the drug you need to end it all, and it’s good night nurse.

Dressed in an improbably upbeat Hawaiian shirt, Nitschke was revelling in his latest bout of martyrdom when bailed up at Heathrow, the Brits showing the same quaint conviction as the Australian authorities that it’s the job of doctors to find creative ways to keep people alive rather than killing them.

Nitschke and his backers are now trying to turn his so-called persecution into a freedom of speech issue. They are furious that the Rudd Government has not overturned former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock’s ban on Nitschke’s chirpily-named death manual, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, and fear similar censorship in the UK.

For man who’s apparently been silenced, Nitschke has got about 300 radio and television interviews and 500-odd print mentions he might want removed from Google should he want to sustain his argument.

Late yesterday he was scheduled to take part in a live Q-and-A on the UK Sky News website, such is the repression he faces over his views.
In (another) expansive interview last week on Cameron Reilly’s Gdayworld podcast, Nitschke described prohibitions on his discussion of methods of suicide as ”a pretty serious erosion of free speech.”

Technically it is. But the erosion of Nitschke’s liberties is less of an issue than the reckless dissemination of step-by-step instructions on something as absolute as suicide - instructions which could easily be accessed by the depressed, the young, even by older people who might actually recover from a seemingly unassailable illness and wangle another decade or two of living.

As Nitschke becomes more manic and persecuted, and his methods of departure grow crazier, it’s become clear that he brings nothing beyond vaudeville to the important debate about whether the chronically ill should be allowed to hasten their death - which I’m personally inclined to think they should be able to do, just not if he’s got anything to do with it.

I spent a depressing hour this week reading about the lives of those he has helped - helped end that is - and they all break your heart. But some of them are sad not so much because of their illness, but because they died without friends or family. It makes you wonder whether it’s this crushing loneliness, at being so sick with nobody around, that makes some of these people determined to check out as quickly as they can, and whether Nitschke is latching on to them for his own ends.

There is one fellow whom Nitschke is “helping” right now who lives on his own with a Jack Russell Terrier in an apartment in Darwin, he’s had prostate cancer for 16 years, and he is about to die a solitary death. No friends, no family, no-one at all but the person who wants to kill him.

To a point you can give Nitschke some credit for at least providing the old man with some companionship. But it looks like he’s just been roped along as part of a crusade by a man who’s every bit as obsessive as he was at the age of 15.

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    • Fred Nerk says:

      05:04pm | 01/06/09

      I’m nudging 70, unlike you,  judging by your photo. I am of sound health and mind, and have no intention of shuffling off, either willingly, or unwillingly, just yet. But if the time should come, where I feel that I want to end it all, for whatever reason, then I would like to be sufficiently informed as to the best method of doing so. It isn’t really up to you, or interfering politicians and religious freaks, to be telling me what to do with my life. So, enough of the condescending twaddle, and attempts to denigrate the only man who has had the courage to face up to a very real problem that confronts many whose lives are done.

    • George Cooley says:

      10:03am | 05/11/09

      I’m sick of the Pro-Life propaganda.  You guys worry how I want to end MY life, how someone want to have an abortion.  Yet you are watching thousands of babies and adults die of hunger and sickness everyday in the third world countries.  Go and channel your energy into birth control in those countries and
      how to overcome food shortages and how to make the advanced economy countries change their unfair farm subsidy program fairer so the third world countries have a chance to compete in farming. That’s my Pro-Life point of view.

    • Kris says:

      12:08pm | 05/11/09

      Ignoring the rather large bump, Penbo stated fairly clearly in his article that he is “personally inclined to think that the chronically ill should be entitled to hasten their death”. That hardly classifies him as pro-life does it?


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