Suicide Radicalism Surges in America

Original Article

The international assisted suicide movement has many faces. America’s “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian probably comes most readily to mind. The activist groups Compassion and Choices and Final Exit Network, are also well known. Then there is Australia’s own suicide promoter Philip Nitschke, who travels the world teaching people how to commit suicide with helium and a plastic bag or animal euthanasia drugs obtained from Mexico.

Already Nitschke has brought his suicide seminar to California and Washington State, where he taught all comers how they can make themselves dead.

But 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 terminally ill. Indeed, in 2001 interview with National Review Online, Nitschke asserted that “all people qualify, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, the troubled teen.” He even envisioned suicide pills available in supermarkets.

Nitschke has put his nihilistic beliefs into action. When the Australian Northern Territory legalized assisted suicide, he created a computer program that released deadly drugs into the user’s blood stream at the push of a keyboard button. Four people died in this manner before the law was overturned by the Australian government. Until it was made illegal in Australia, he distributed custom made plastic “Exit Bags” 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, for use in suicide so that people would not have to rely on doctors for deadly drugs. He also sells a drug testing kit to help the suicidal ensure that an intended 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 due to 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 the non-terminal nature of her condition was “irrelevant” because she was “hopelessly ill” with a painful digestive problem.

Some 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? Indeed, that is precisely what is happening in Washington, where assisted suicide is legal for people with terminal illnesses.

More importantly, 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, may suffer far more profoundly and for a longer time. That is precisely what has happened in the Netherlands and Switzerland, after assisted suicide became popularly accepted. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Switzerland declared a constitutional right to assisted suicide for the mentally ill.

Yes, Philip Nitschke appears to be on the radical edge of the assisted suicide movement. But he’s really just more candid. Indeed, he is often invited to speak at international euthanasia society gatherings. Should assisted suicide mentality sink into the bedrock of American culture—which alas, is already happening, state by state—the question will not be whether its practice will expand to accommodate Nitschke’s dark vision, but rather, how long that process will take.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.