by Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick OBE, Director, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, International and leader of Not Dead Yet UK
The idea of a ‘rational’ suicide is, to Philip Nitschke, mere ‘commonsense’. It is a seductive idea – as so many of his pronouncements can be to an unreflective audience – it contains dangerous elisions that serve his purposes and try to bury serious, thoughtful objections. His recent comments follow Belgium’s decision to euthanize one of its prisoners, a serial rapist/murderer.
Counting suicide as a rational act is shallow and self-serving; if people buy the idea from him, then he stands to sell more of his death-kits, take the media limelight for those who kill themselves following his advice, sell more places at his death seminars and sell membership subscriptions to his organisation – make no mistake, Nitschke enjoys his notoriety built from the despair of others, but he makes money too, on their backs already strained to the point of terminal desolation.
Counting euthanasia of convicted serial killers as rational is the kind of easy extension he makes without drawing breath One response to his remark about a mass murderer of 35 people, is to wonder what the families of his victims make of ‘releasing’ him through euthanasia, and indeed, what they think of Nitschke for proffering the idea. Some of them, like one family member of a victim of the Belgian rapist/murderer, might prefer that he ‘rot’ in prison.
Whatever we might make of that, it is a serious response - not to be glossed over or ignored completely, not even counted as something to be considered. Do victims’ families deserve Nitschke’s further deep insults?
The prisoner has apparently sought psychiatric help: Belgium’s mental health service being inadequate, he appealed to be transferred to a Dutch facility where he could get appropriately professional help: his request was denied. One irony of the Belgian case is that the prisoner has been placed on ‘suicide watch’. (‘Let’s keep him alive until we can get him into the execution chamber’.)
So Nitschke is in favour of euthanizing people with a long (30 year) history of mental health issues who have been failed by the Belgian State - like their failure to support middle-aged twins with their needs, the transsexual who suffered botched operations, the anorexic woman whose psychiatrist sexually abused her). And Nitschke thinks Belgium is the best.
In Belgian law ‘unbearable psychological suffering’ is sufficient to allow euthanasia. But, whatever crime has been committed, suicidal depression is not uncommon amongst prisoners of all kinds, even short-stayers.
So when one is euthanized what happens next? Apparently 15 other prisoners have already applied for euthanasia in Belgium. Where is Nitschke’s reflection on this re-introduction of capital punishment ‘by the back door’ in a country which only so recently gave it up (1 August 1996).
Nitschke is nothing if not chillingly clear: the Belgians’ approach is marvellous (‘progressive’) because it moves from ‘terminal illness’ - a definition which even he acknowledges is ‘notorious’ (read ‘unsafe’) within medicine - to a focus upon judgments about a person’s ‘quality of life ‘as experienced by them’. So, the subjective experience of pain, which cannot be determined as ‘true or false’ by anyone, doctor or otherwise, is enough. As long as I say ‘I am in unbearable pain’ psychological or physical, I am immediately a candidate for Nitshckean euthanasia. No further question needed.
He goes on: ‘Imprisonment for life, with no hope of parole, is torture.’ There is a genuine debate about forms of punishment, their efficacy, their value to society and to victims, whether punishment should be retribution (revenge) or for reform or to deter others. It is a big question: what brings justice? (What is justice?). There are differing views in that debate: that life sentences ‘should mean life’; that they kill any chance of reform through working at personal change, enlightenment or remorse. The central role of a perpetrator’s genuine remorse in the possibility of victims being able to find healing is completely lost.
He cites Nigel Brayley, 45-year old, not terminally ill: Nigel told him that it ‘made sense to prepare for the future. You never know what’s round the corner.’ But Brayley was being investigated for the mysterious disappearance of not one but two wives/partners.
Nitschke finds it ‘difficult to know the exact nature of my crime(s)…Nigel’s early suicide makes … sense; pre-emptive action against a possible life sentence. A life imprisoned is a life wasted.’
He constantly demonstrates, at best, how little insight he has into the complexity of human life and relations; and if he protests that he does understand them, then he is guilty of something much more sinister.
Finally he relies on John Stuart Mill. Claiming that he, Nitschke is ‘fervently’ against capital punishment, he contradicts himself by saying that ‘if that killing is self-determined then I support it’. So what…every prisoner who tries to commit suicide should be helped to do so because it is ‘self-determined’? But we know Nitschke of old – he only withdrew his remarks that teenagers should have access to suicide pills when it caused a storm – he did not withdraw his ‘fervent’ belief that he is right that they should. His reliance on Mill’s Utilitarianism, which is a bankrupt moral view, is fatuous, and though unsurprising in his shallow thinking, it is deeply worrying because of the ease with which it is accepted more widely.
‘Australia should have the courage to follow Belgium’s lead and legislate, not just for the terminally ill, but for suffering inmates also.’
Australians and the world would do far better to listen to Australian philosopher Rai Gaita who rightly pins some of the blame for this radical change of thinking on some more recent philosophers, those who have been at the forefront of speaking with such ‘ease of conscience’ in developing a new ‘practical ethics’ which has so relaxed any previous restraints we had against killing people.
For Gaita, using mere ‘blackboard examples’ they have ‘extended the arrogance and insularity of the worst kind of academic professionalism’ to drive a less informed public to accept their so-called ‘logical conclusions’. In so doing, they generally ‘show no fear or even slight anxiety at the responsibility they have assumed; they have no sense of awe in the face of the questions they have raised, and no sense of humility in the face of the traditions they so condescendingly dismiss. They are aggressively without a sense of mystery…’
Nitschke too: his catastrophic arrogance pays no regard to the value of human life, any human life. His is the cult of death, fostering his idea that taking the life of a human being is like waving a hand. Little wonder he has been suspended from practising as a doctor – which rational person could want him at their hospital bedside?