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Our culture of death

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 31 October 2008

It was one of those times I had to sit in the car and listen to Radio National long after I arrived at my destination. The program was the second part of “Losing Erin” broadcast on Street Stories.

Erin Berg was a youngish mother of four who found her self deeply depressed after the birth of her fourth child and the breakdown of her relationship with the father. So severe was her depression that she contemplated suicide with the help of Philip Nitschke’s book Killing me softly that recommended the taking of Nembutal to ensure a painless and peaceful death. The book mentioned that Nembutal could be obtained over the counter at pet supply stores in Tijuana, Mexico. Erin flew to Mexico and took the drug but it took her ten days to die. Her sisters flew to her side and they watched as she had some moments of consciousness followed by her death.

The thing that struck me about the program was the contrast between the sisters’ painful narration of Erin’s death and Nitschke’s calm defence of his book and the advice given in it.


Erin had argued with the sisters about her right to choose death for herself and how that death could be painless and peaceful. The reality, of course was quite otherwise. Even if her attempt had not been botched, so that she lingered for 10 days, the death of a young mother by her own hand could never be a peaceful or a painless affair. The pain could be heard in the voices of her sisters. How will her four children deal with the fact that their mother killed herself? Nitschke seemed oblivious of this.

He can do this because his view of humanity is atomistic, he sees the individual as existing alone and being able to make decisions on that basis. But we all know that that is not true, our lives are human exactly in our connection with others. Indeed, it could be said that we do not “exist” apart from those connections. When we commit self murder (no death is “euthanasia”) we do two things, we cut those connections that make us who we are and we tell those we are connected to that life is not worth the candle.

This is not peaceful death as Nitschke would have it, it is anything but peaceful: it is full of violence. This young woman was ripped away from her children and her family and friends, leaving grief and bewilderment to haunt them for the rest of their lives. How does it happen that we could call this a good death and proclaim that this woman had a right to murder herself?

The other area of this culture of death occurs in most maternity hospitals in the thousands of abortions that are performed each year in Australia. Again the increasingly silly language of human rights are used to justify the silent murder of the child in the womb. The rights of the unborn compete with the rights of the mother. Here is the atomised self again. But the unborn do have relations. They have a father and a mother, grandparents and cousins and uncles and aunties. They have a future. A termination means that all of these things that constitute life itself are severed. A grandparent will mourn the loss of the child and wonder what that future would have held. Will the mother walking past a playground also wonder?

This culture of death is all so rational; indeed reason run amuck. We are mad with reason. Death is seen as the solution to the problem. Take the pill, fall asleep, abort the fetus and get on with an unencumbered life. These solutions to the problems of life are seen as having slight consequences. A painless death is likened to falling asleep, a daily and pleasant experience for us all. Nothing could be easier. But, as the pain of Erin’s sisters illustrates, it is not that simple. There are now four children in the world who must wonder why their mother chose death instead of them.

Likewise, abortions are called terminations, it sounds like the end of a train journey. What possible consequences could there possibly be to scraping an embryo from the lining of the uterus? If that is alright, because at that stage it does not look like a human infant, then what about when it does? What about when the heart beat is strong and the nursing staff are disturbed by the sight of babies in buckets?


It is obvious that both forms of death dealing have consequences. However, consequential ethics is not the end of the story. Our civilisation is not built on these but on the pursuit of truth and justice. Indeed we despise regimes that only look to consequences and who thus perpetrate the most obscene acts to achieve a desired outcome. We think we are better than that. But how much better when we regard suicide and abortion as just the exercise of a person’s rights to choose?

It amuses me that “human rights” are used both to condemn murder and torture and to give permission for self murder and the murder of the unborn.

What sort of ethical system is this?

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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