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An atheist who loved his neighbour

By Brian Holden - posted Thursday, 10 July 2008

It has been a long and frustrating row to hoe for Philip Nitschke. His is a working life of constant confrontation with the establishment (a Google search brings up 42 pages of links relating to him) and of scratching around for money to keep viable his crusade for the right to die with dignity. Maybe Nitschke was born to remain restless until he had a cause to fight for. His history indicates this.

After gaining a PhD in laser physics, he left that field to work with the Gurindi people, and from there he went on to be ranger with the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission. Nitschke then studied medicine - graduating at age 42.

He got a job as a doctor at the Royal Darwin Hospital. Nitschke was working in the public health system which puts a lot of effort into promoting an exaggerated image of dedication and competence. It was only a matter of time before there was a falling out.


It came when a nuclear submarine moored in Darwin Harbour to the delight of the local business people who were hoping Darwin would become a US naval base. This was a time for buying beers for sailors and not for any radical jumping up and down.

At the hospital, Nitschke was the designated Radiation Safety Officer - and yet there was no nuclear disaster plan in place when there was supposed to be. He blew the whistle, and the system’s retribution which followed almost crushed him. He got out of the public system and set up an out-of-hours drug rehabilitation service.

Following the introduction of the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, he became passionately involved with those who wanted to use the act to end their lives.

Family and friends could gather in the house of the person wishing to die. That person would then send a command through a computer for a fatal drug to be injected by a machine designed by Nitschke. The first to die by this method described what Nitschke was doing as an act of love.

While some well known people have worked hard for the cause while still working in their profession, it has been Nitschke who has made it his life’s work. Currently he runs workshops on how to suicide without botching the process and ending up still alive but brain damaged.

This is not loving your neighbour

After only four patients had been able to use the NT Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, a private member’s bill introduced by a member of the federal parliament, Kevin Andrews, overturned the world’s first assisted death law. Andrews exploited the technicality that the Northern Territory was not a state.


Although prone to fearing imaginary threats, Australians typically do not recognise a real threat until it becomes the elephant in the bathroom. Andrews’ electorate allowed him to get away with this strike against democracy via a backdoor, and he retained his seat at the next election.

While suicide is no longer a crime, unscrewing the cap off a bottle of Nembutal for a person with unbearable arthritis could, in theory, land you in jail for 25 years. Under the Suicide Related Materials Act, it is now even a crime to discuss end-of-life options by phone, email, Internet or fax.

To be fair to the servants of the Lord, if the Australian Medical Association was not against euthanasia, we would probably now have it. Although many doctors support euthanasia, the AMA sees its duty as advising its members to avoid situations which could be legally complicated and psychologically stressful.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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