Dr. Death Down Under

Article excerpt

A recent survey of Australian doctors by the University of Newcastle found that more than one third of surgeons admit to having administered lethal doses of painkillers at the request of patients.

Dr. Philip Nitschke thinks it's a crime that what they have confessed to is a crime.

Philip Nitschke is Australia's Dr. Death. Their answer to Jack Kevorkian. Except he has no intention of limiting his crusade to the former British penal colony.

By now the whole world over is familiar with Rebecca Gomperts, the abortion-boat woman, who may not have performed any abortions on international waters yet-and frankly may never. But Gomperts has succeeded in the one thing she really set out to do: be seen and heard. Now it is Philip Nitschke's turn.

A la Gomperts, he wants a boat. With assisted suicide legal in the Netherlands, Nitschke plans to take assisted suicide where it is not allowed.

Head of the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation (VERF), Nitschke is a tireless crusader to make the world safe for death.

VERF refers to March 27, 1997 as "the day of shame." On that day, the Australian Senate passed the Andrews Bill, which overturned the Northern Territory's law permitting the terminally ill to assistance in ending their suffering if they wish.

Nitschke wouldn't be considered too outside-the-mainstream here in the U.S. Jack Kevorkian may be behind bars (in fact, his latest appeal for release was rejected by a judge this Thanksgiving), but he is not without his supporters. And far from his Michigan jail cell, the culture of death has taken hold. Oregon's Death with Dignity act took effect in 1997. Since then, about 70 people have been legally murdered under it. In early November, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft moved to direct the Drug Enforcement Agency to prosecute doctors who prescribe lethal doses of federally controlled substances.

Assisted suicide/euthanasia experts, of course, were livid. So were states'-- rights absolutists. And the nation's op-ed writers. The Oregon attorney general immediately asked for a court injunction so that the Ashcroft memo to the DEA could not be enforced. The Oregon law lives on as does the debate.

Australia's Advocate

Philip Nitschke has made a worldwide name for himself advocating death. In Australia, his militancy has led him to stints as a lecturer, inventor, and even a political candidate. (He says he has himself assisted in some 20 deaths.)

"I watched with dismay as the Australian Medical Association did all it could to wreck the world's first law legalizing voluntary euthanasia," he told me in an interview, referring to the Northern Territory Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, which had been passed in 1996. Its rescission in 1997, Nitschke says, is what truly launched his vocation as advocate for death.

He explains, "We have been once again plunged back into a jungle where people with powerful friends, people with contacts, [and] people with mates who are doctors, have no trouble getting help to peacefully end their lives at the time of their choosing. But for the rest, many people who have never broken a law in their lives find themselves having to sneak around and expose those they care about to significant legal risk."

"Without the existence of voluntary euthanasia legislation," Nitschke says, "it is inequitable and unjust [toward] the losers on the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum." He says the issue is not unlike abortion: "There is an uncanny parallel with the abortion issue of 25 years ago, where women with contacts and money never had to take risks getting access to safe terminations. It is the inequity and injustice of the current situation. . . that upsets me and drives me."

A View to a Kill

Nitschke's way of getting around national prohibitions against suicide is his boat. The idea is that it would be a Dutch-registered vessel engaging in international travel between countries. …