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Taking the assistance out of suicide?

By Philip Nitschke - posted Friday, 13 August 2010

As a boy, my mother always told me that you should never ask your neighbour to do something that you wouldn't do yourself. I doubt she was talking about suicide, but if we had this conversation again in later life she could well be. And I would not disagree with her.

The recent call by Auckland GP, Dr John Pollock, has brought the issue of assisted suicide back into our lounge rooms. As the nation argues whether anyone of us deserves assistance in our dying weeks, days or hours, my long association with this issue has made me think a bit beyond the tabloid headlines.

In this respect I have recently re-titled the workshop program that I hold annually in New Zealand, Australia and around the world.


Whereas once our workshops focused on Assisted Suicide, these days the focus is on Safe Suicide. Information that equips the seriously ill to organise their deaths, should that need ever arise is my case in point.

Back on the 22 September 1986 I used my training as a doctor to help a terminally ill man to die peacefully and with dignity. That man was prostate cancer sufferer, Bob Dent.

Bob died in Darwin under the Northern Territory's Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Three more of my patients followed in Bob's footsteps. All were terminally ill, of sound mind and desperate for relief from their suffering.

The ROTI Act is now long dead, pardon the pun. This ground-breaking piece of legislation lasted nine months before a vote in the Australian Federal Parliament barred the Northern Territory from making laws on voluntary euthanasia. The law promptly ceased to operate.

Back then, however, even though that law allowed me to administer a legal, lethal, voluntary injection I did not do it.

The reasons are varied.


Firstly, I did not want to be sitting right by the patient in their final moments. While doctors can often become confidants and even friends with their patients in the majority of cases, we are just doing our job. Call it professional distance.

On the other hand, I have always believed that the personal space of a dying person belongs to their nearest and dearest. That is what I would want. That is overwhelmingly what the patients also want.

Secondly, I did not want to be the person to make the final decision about when that person's life should end.

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First published in the New Zealand Dominion Post July 30, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Philip Nitschke is director of EXIT(Australia). He assisted four patients to die under the short lived NT voluntary euthanasia legislation. Today, he is director of Exit International.

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All articles by Philip Nitschke

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