Death is the ultimate ending for all living beings. Yet, strangely, very few societies allow us the freedom to choose to die of our own volition – a practice called euthanasia or assisted suicide. The right to take our own life is something that should be a universal privilege and our last act of freedom. However, as it is now, it is only permitted in rare situations and only for the terminally ill.
To continue to live without the will of the spirit is to be in a biological prison. It unnecessarily prolongs old age and needlessly – and often painfully – extends the slow deterioration of the body towards its inevitable outcome.
In an exclusive interview with PRESSENZA, the Australian doctor Philip Nitschke, who has been fighting for this right for years, talks about his life and the creation of EXIT INTERNATIONAL.
Philip Nitschke (born 8 August 1947), Australian humanist, author and physicist, is the founder and director of the pro-euthanasia group, Exit International, which campaigned hard for the Australian government to pass a law legalising euthanasia. The right to die had been in force in the Northern Territory of Australia in the 1990s, but pressure from the church and conservative groups abolished it one year later.
Nitschke was the first doctor in the world to administer euthanasia. The criticism and harassment that followed compelled him to burn his medical certificate in 2015 and leave Australia for good.
Here are his answers to an exclusive interview with PRESSENZA. In his final response to a question about his own death, he replies:”I will not be depending on other people, as I have access to whatever drugs I’ll need for my euthanasia. But the idea of a death celebrated with others in grand style in an elegant Sarco machine, in an outdoor setting of choice, would be much more appealing to me.”
Pressenza: -Could you please describe yourself and your involvement in the Right to Die movement?
PN: I have a background in physics and I also trained as a medical practitioner in Australia. My involvement with the right to die issue came when I was practicing medicine in Darwin, Australia in 1995. The government of the Northern Territory announced that they would introduce a law that would allow a terminally ill person to get help from a doctor to die. There was strong opposition from the church and the medical profession and I was one of the few doctors that supported the proposal. The law passed and came into force on 1 July 1996, it was the world’s first voluntary euthanasia law. As I was known as a supported of the legislation, I found myself having to make use of the law, and in September of that year I provided a lethal injection to prostate cancer sufferer Bob Dent. To deliver the injection I built a machine, the Deliverance machine, which is now in the British museum. I used the law, and the machine, four times before it was overturned by the Federal government of Australia in 1997.
With the loss of the law, I set up Exit International to provide end of life options for people who wanted to die. The organisation has become international, and our philosophy is that all rational adults should have the means to peacefully and reliably end their lives. To do this I run workshops around the world and publish an on-line handbook, The Peaceful Pill Handbook that provides information of the best available means for those who want a DIY death.
Pressenza: -What are the main problems you have face with conservative societies?
PN: Many people believe that help should only be provided by doctors for those terminally ill. I have taken a much broader position arguing that this should not just be a privilege for the very sick, but more fundamentally, a right for all rational adults. This position upset the Medical Board of Australia who argued that I was a danger to the Australian public and used their emergency powers to de-register me. After a long court battle I won the case and was re-registered, but the Medical Board then argued that I could not practise medicine and be the author of The Peaceful Pill eHandbook. They insisted that I remove my name as author if I wished to practice. The book had become the world’s best selling end of life handbook and I was disgusted by this condition. I burnt my medical certificate in Darwin and moved to Europe in 2015
Pressenza: -What has been the most rewarding experience in your life?
PN: Watching the relief that experienced Bob Dent when he pushed the button on the Deliverance euthanasia machine and the drugs started to flow. The drugs put an end to his suffering and his wife Judy was able to hold him in her arms as he died. It was the world’s first voluntary legal lethal injection, and I was immensely relieved all had gone well, and proud to have been part of it.
Pressenza: Can you explain what is Exit organization and do you think in the future the right to die will be a law in our planet? and for yourself, do you have plans to end your life by your free will?
PN: Exit continues to argue for the ‘rights’ model of end of life choice. This is the model which is in place in Switzerland (but no where else). All other jurisdictions with end of life laws have adopted the ‘medical’ model, where you must be sick (usually terminal) and a doctor makes the decision if you are to get help. Exit believes that the only criteria should be age (you must be an adult), and you must be of sound mind (ie have ‘mental capacity’). People often come to Exit with compelling social reasons for ending their life. They can be helped with access to the best DIY methods and drugs, or they can travel to Switzerland where they can obtain lawful assistance.
Pressenza: These are the main questions but also I would like to know about your experience as a doctor, before Exit and also about your life
PN: My background was in rural Australia and I completed a doctorate in physics before traveling to the Northern Territory to work in a variety of environmental and social causes. After a bad accident restricted my work in the Parks and Wildlife service, I travelled to Sydney and re-trained in Medicine. I came back to Darwin the complete my medical training and was there when the announcement was made about the plan to introduce euthanasia legislation.
I am married and my partner Fiona Stewart is the co-author of the euthanasia Handbook. We currently live in the Netherlands.
Pressenza: One last question, are you willing to end your life in the same way, when you decide to do it by your free will? Thank you
PN: yes, I will not be depending on other people, as I have access to whatever drugs I’ll need for my euthanasia. But the idea of a death celebrated with others in grand style in an elegant Sarco machine, in an outdoor setting of choice, would be much more appealing to me.