The international assisted-suicide movement has many faces. America’s “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, probably comes most readily to mind. The activist groups, Compassion & Choices and Final Exit Network, are also well known. Then there is Australia’s “Dr. Death,” Philip Nitschke, who travels the world teaching people how to commit suicide with helium or animal-euthanasia drugs obtained from Mexico.
On Sunday, Nitschke will bring his suicide seminar to the Buddhist Center in San Francisco, where he will teach attendees how to kill themselves.
Shouldn’t there be limits to assisted-suicide permissiveness? Not according to Nitschke, who bluntly takes assisted-suicide advocacy to its logical conclusion. If we each own our bodies, he says, and if self-termination is an acceptable answer to human suffering, then assisted suicide shouldn’t be restricted to limited “subgroups,” such as the dying. Indeed, in 2001 interview with National Review Online, Nitschke asserted that “all people qualify … including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, the troubled teen.”
Nitschke has put his beliefs into action. When the Australian Northern Territory legalized assisted suicide, he created a computer program that released deadly drugs into the user’s bloodstream at the push of a keyboard button. Four people died in this manner before the law was overturned by the Australian federal government. Until it was made illegal in Australia, he distributed a custom-made plastic “exit bag,” along with instructions on its use in association with a barbiturate overdose. He concocted the “peaceful pill,” in actuality, a toxic recipe made from common household ingredients. He also sells a drug-testing kit to help the suicidal ensure that their overdose will do the job.
In 2002, a woman named Nancy Crick caused a media frenzy in Australia after announcing publicly that she was being counseled by Nitschke because of terminal cancer. After months of equivocating, she finally killed herself in front of a group of awestruck euthanasia advocates, who reportedly applauded when she took the drugs (Nitschke was not present).
When the autopsy showed that she was not terminally ill, Nitschke admitted that he and Crick knew it all along. However, rather than apologize, he argued that her nonterminal condition was “irrelevant” because she was “hopelessly ill” with a painful digestive problem.
Other assisted-suicide advocates will say that Nitschke’s activities illustrate why assisted suicide should be legally regulated. But why would that stop him from “counseling” people who would not qualify for assisted suicide under such a law? More important, if society comes to broadly accept a “right” of the dying to receive assisted suicide – currently legal in three states – what would prevent legal access to terminal prescriptions from expanding eventually to people with serious disabilities and chronic diseases, the elderly and the existentially despairing, who, after all, might suffer far more profoundly and for a longer time? And indeed, that is precisely what has happened in the Netherlands and Switzerland, after assisted suicide became popularly accepted.
Nitschke appears to be on the radical edge of the assisted suicide movement – but he’s really not. Should assisted-suicide mentality sink into the bedrock of American culture, the question will not be whether its practice will expand to accommodate Nitschke’s dark vision, but rather, how long that process will take.