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photo_right_blank.gif (1614 bytes)  Opinion Pieces

Suicide is fatal - 30 May 2003

Suicide is fatal
The Courier-Mail (Brisbane)
Friday, 30 May 2003
By Mary Joseph

He sang as if he knew me
In all my dark despair
And then he looked right through me
As if I wasn't there


This week pro-euthanasia group Exit Australia will hold its “Killing me softly - love, death and dying in Australia” conference in Sydney, featuring serial suicide adviser Dr Philip Nitschke.

The reference in the conference title to the classic Roberta Flack song is apt. Nitschke has been killing them softly with his words for a number of years.

But his target group has changed in the past year, with evidence that healthy, non-terminally ill people have become the new frontier for the euthanasia lobby.

Just a year or two ago, euthanasia activists claimed to want to assist only those who were terminally ill and suffering as a result. In 2001 Nitschke told US National Review that he chose to restrict himself to helping the group of “terminally ill adults who are articulate, lucid and not suffering from clinically treatable depression”.

However Nitschke signalled a shift in the same article. “Someone needs to provide this knowledge, training or recourse necessary to anyone who wants (death), including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, the troubled teen”, he said.

Further, he argued these people should be allowed to buy his proposed suicide pill in supermarkets.

In the last year, Nitschke has become involved with highly publicised cases of people who are not terminally ill. It began last year with Nancy Crick. After her suicide it emerged that Crick was not terminally ill - a fact Nitschke had not publicly revealed.

Crick was what the international euthanasia movement calls “hopelessly ill”, a new catch-all category to include those who don't fit the definition of terminal illness.

This was a significant and frightening new step in the Australian euthanasia debate.

Later the suicides of Lisette Nigot, a woman called Ruth and Syd and Marjorie Croft, all in relatively good health, helped the euthanasia lobby take things even further. Terminal, even “hopeless” illnesses were no longer needed as justification for suicide or euthanasia. These actions were portrayed as rational suicide.

The concept of rational suicide greatly expands the range of people at risk from euthanasia activists. It could include those living in social isolation, those with physical disabilities or even businesspeople who go bankrupt. One person’s sad and desperate cry for help is another person’s rational suicide.

Nitschke’s euthanasia clinics attract people who are desperate or afraid of what might happen to themselves and their loved ones. The clinics provide people with the practical knowledge to play out suicidal thoughts.

Suicide accounts for the deaths of more than 2400 Australians every year. It is a national tragedy that so many people are so desperate and have so little hope and support that they take their own lives.

Nitschke's activities stand in contrast to our national strategy to reduce the suicide rate. They directly counter the Federal Government's Framework for the Prevention of Suicide and Self-Harm in Australia.

The framework is based on the fact that people killing or harming themselves indicates they are not happy and need help - help to live, not help to self-harm.

Research into the practice of euthanasia in Australia, co-authored by Nitschke and published in The Lancet, revealed that “pain was not a prominent clinical issue in our study. Fatigue, frailty, depression and other symptoms contributed more to the suffering of patients. There is a need to respond creatively to social isolation, and to treat actively all symptoms with early and skilled palliative care.”

How is Nitschke’s death arsenal a “creative response”? With little knowledge of depression or palliative care, Nitschke is not equipped to address the needs of people who approach him. He is strumming their pain with his fingers, pursuing his disconnected, remote approach to medicine, often with lethal consequences.

Nitschke’s headlong rush to promote death as a solution does not help people. We need instead a compassionate response to address suffering. That response may not be as clinical, neat and swift as euthanasia, but it is only the difficult yet very human responses that can address the deep human need and despair that lie behind suicide.

Mary Joseph is spokeswoman for the Australian Federation of Right to Life Associations. mary@righttolife.asn.au