The international euthanasia movement’s first principle is radical individualism. The idea is that we each own our own body and hence should be able to do what we choose with our physical self—including destroy it. Not only that, but if we want to die, liberty dictates that we should have ready access to a “good death,” a demise that is peaceful and pain-free.
Most euthanasia advocates are not so blunt about this, of course, since candor about these matters would likely be detrimental to their movement’s political health. But there are a few activists whose public advocacy—and their general acceptance by the international euthanasia movement—demonstrates the ultimate place to which legalized euthanasia would likely take us.
Jack Kevorkian was one such activist. In 1992, Kevorkian wrote in the American Journal of Forensic Psychiatry that death clinics should be established permitting the dying, disabled, and, eventually, “patients tortured by other than organic diseases” to receive facilitated death, a process he called “medicide.” Despite this clear advocacy of death-on-demand, and despite his having assisted the suicides of scores of disabled rather than dying people (five victims weren’t even ill, according to their autopsies), Kevorkian remains wildly popular among euthanasia activists, to the point that he is considered by many a movement martyr (due to his imprisonment).
Phillip Nitschke is another prominent euthanasia advocate who reveals the euthanasia movement’s radical individualist mindset. Nitschke is known as the Jack Kevorkian of Australia, and for good reason: He believes in death-on-demand. And like Kevorkian, he has not limited his “death counseling” to the terminally ill. This included, most notoriously, a woman named Nancy Crick who made headlines when she announced on Australian television and internationally through her website that she would commit assisted suicide because she had terminal cancer. But when her autopsy showed she was cancer free, Nitschke admitted he and Crick had known all along that she wasn’t dying but pronounced that medical fact “irrelevant” because she wanted to die.
Nitschke’s radical individualist mindset was demonstrated most vividly in a June 5, 2001, interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, in which he asserted that suicide facilitation should be available to “anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved [and] the troubled teen.” Toward achieving this end, funded abundantly by the Hemlock Society of the United States (now merged with Compassion in Dying into the newly named Compassion and Choice), Nitschke experimented with developing a “peaceful pill” that could be used to commit a pain-free suicide. According to Nitschke, the peaceful pill was to be for anyone who wanted it, even asserting in NRO that it “should be available in the supermarket so that those old enough to understand death could obtain death peacefully at the time of their choosing.”
In order to understand the scope and depth of the threat posed to vulnerable and depressed people by the euthanasia mindset, it is important to comprehend that Nitschke is not a fringe character within the international euthanasia movement. Indeed, while most euthanasia activists do not advocate suicide facilitation for troubled teens, Nitschke’s death-on-demand ideology has not caused the movement to shun him. Quite the contrary: Nitschke is often an honored speaker at international euthanasia conferences, where, to great applause, he demonstrates various suicide-facilitation contraptions that he has invented. Such actions speak louder than activists’ soothing words promising strict limits on legalized euthanasia.
And now, it appears that Nitschke finally succeeded in inventing his peaceful pill. The November newsletter of Exit International, the premier Australian euthanasia-advocacy group, has announced “The Peanut Project” (symbolized surrealistically by a smiling, dancing peanut icon), which will soon convene Exit members from Australia and other countries to teach participants how to create their own suicide concoction. “At the end of the week-end,” the newsletter crows, “participants will leave with their own, self-made [Peaceful] Pill.”
On one level, the constant drive among movement activists to find new and novel suicide methods is just plain silly. Anyone who really wants to die, even those who are seriously ill or disabled, can find a way to end it all without needing help from the likes of Phillip Nitschke. Moreover, suicide pills have existed for a very long time, as evidenced by Nazi bigwig Hermann Goering’s biting on a cyanide capsule hours before his scheduled execution by hanging.
But beneath the weirdness, the shenanigans of Nitschke and his suicide groupies should serve as a warning to the rest of us about the potential consequences of legalizing assisted suicide. United States advocates like to pretend that legalized facilitated death will always be limited to the actively dying when nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering. But this is highly unlikely. Once one accepts the noxious notion that killing is an acceptable answer to the problem of human suffering, how can it possibly be limited to the terminally ill?
After all, disabled people, the elderly, and those with devastating existential grief caused by, say, the sudden death of family members, may suffer more profoundly—and for a longer period of time—than the terminally ill. If “self-deliverance” is, in principle, okay for those who experience less suffering for a shorter duration, then how would we justify denying termination to those who would seem to have a greater claim to receiving help to die?
In fact, this is precisely what has happened in the Netherlands. After more than 30 years of permitted euthanasia, the category of the Dutch killable has expanded steadily; it now includes the depressed, the chronically ill, and the disabled, including infants who are born with birth defects. And now, the Dutch parliament seems set on lowering the age of consent to be killed to twelve years old.
This should all be kept firmly in mind as we enter a new legislative year in which several states may see legislation introduced to legalize assisted suicide. In the intense debate to come, we will hear ad nauseum about how assisted suicide will be limited to the dying and how supposedly strict guidelines will protect against abuse.
Talk is cheap. What really counts are first principles and the societal forces that such laws set in motion. For as soon as we accept killing as a legitimate answer to human suffering, it ceases to be a question of whether euthanasia practices will expand to accommodate the Nitschke/Kevorkian approach and becomes one of how long that process will take.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. He is the author most recently of Consumer’s Guide to a Brave New World.