Dr. Death—as Philip Nitschke has long been known—was recently downgraded to Mr. Death, thanks to the nationwide emergency suspension of his medical license by the Australian Medical Board’s South Australian affiliate. The panel found
that he “posed a ‘serious risk’ to the health and safety of the public.” His status may become permanent, pending the outcome of three separate inquiries into his practice specialty: promoting and aiding people in committing “rational suicide.”In 1997, Nitschke abandoned full-time medical practice to found Exit International (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Research Foundation), through which he conducts his suicide and euthanasia promotional activities, consisting of:● how-to lectures● a euthanasia handbook● personal counseling of “patients” (he’s even made house calls to ensure success)● selling cylinders of nitrogen with instructions on how to use it for suicide and euthanasia, and
● advising individuals and the public on how to obtain and use Nembutal (pentobarbital) also known as “death in a bottle,” a barbiturate now used mainly to euthanize animals.An interesting fact about Nembutal is that its Dutch manufacturer forbids its sale
to prisons for use in lethal injections to carry out the death penalty. Too cruel for convicted murderers, but all right for “rational” suicide in Nitschke’s calculus. Exit International’s tips for obtaining Nembutal are quite specific, as ABC News reported
“Exit International's Web site says the best places to obtain pentobarbital are ‘20-odd [United States-Mexico] border crossings, from Tijuana in California through to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico.’ Having been involved in the deaths of many hundreds of people in Australia, North America and the U.K., the question is: What’s taken so long for these countries or their medical groups to try to curb the activities of Dr. Death that go beyond his free speech rights?These countries have never subscribed to the notion that facilitating so-called rational suicide is in the best interests of individuals or society. Professionals humanely intervene whenever possible to help treat those who are suicidal due to clinical depression or other psychiatric disorders. Drugs, therapy, and counseling are offered so that patients can overcome the impulsive desire to die, can recognize their self-worth and have hope for their future. We already have enough suicides in the United States. In 2010, U.S. suicide deaths
“The group provides information packets for these death tourists, with colorful photos of the packaging to help identify the drug among all the animal products for sale in these over-the-counter veterinary stores.”
(38,364) actually exceeded traffic fatalities (33,687). There’s little comfort in knowing that 32 of 80 reporting countries have suicide rates even worse
than the United States.So, kudos to the Australian Medical Board for taking decisive action.What prompted the Aussies to act against Nitschke now?The “bridge too far” was the prominent suicide death of 45-year-old Nigel Brayley, a Perth native suspected in the murder (by “falling off” a cliff) of his wife, as well as the murder of a former girlfriend. As the police were closing in on his arrest and indictment, with Mr. Brayley facing perhaps 20 years in prison, he attended one of Dr. Death’s workshops, chatted with Nitschke about his situation and later exchanged emails with him. Brayley obtained Nembutal illegally from China and killed himself before he could be arrested. Nitschke admitted in an Australian Broadcasting Company TV interview that he did nothing to stop Brayley’s suicide and defended it as a “rational suicide” because, after all, Brayley preferred not to languish in jail for these murders.Nitschke has been nothing if not defiant, boasting that the publicity has sent ticket sales for his upcoming workshops soaring. The loss of his medical license will have no impact on his practice of promoting and aiding the commission of suicide because, after all, it’s not medical in nature (any more than abortion is a medical procedure no matter how vigorously the leadership of the AMA, ACOG, Planned Parenthood and the Administration defend it as such).What does the Church teach about suicide?The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2280-2283) states that we “are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (2280). Suicide “is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.”The Church also recognizes that when suicide is the result of “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture,” responsibility can be diminished (2282) and that we “should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” (2283). Rather, the Church prays for them.These passages recognize that suicide is a grave wrong, while at the same time understanding that the suicidal intention is impulsive and results, in the great majority of cases, from psychological or emotional disturbances or from addiction … not rational decision-making.The teachings of the Church, while based in natural law as well as Revelation, have proven inadequate to convince the general public that there are few or no circumstances under which suicide could be committed rationally.Broadly acceptable acts some might call suicide Three examples come to mind: When a solider in a war zone makes a split-second decision to fall on a grenade to save the lives of his buddies knowing that his death will result, we’d all agree that his is the ultimate act of heroism and not suicide per se.
Who can forget the poor souls who were stranded on the upper floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11, facing certain and imminent death by the approaching flames that engulfed the towers? Who could possibly fault them for jumping to their deaths instead of waiting to be burned alive?
Perhaps a bit too fanciful: The captured soldier or spy, undergoing torture to make him reveal secrets to the enemy that would cost innocent lives, knows that he can't endure more suffering without giving in. He swallows a cyanide capsule to avoid putting the lives of others in danger. He sees it as a choice between a courageous death and cowardly survival. Many of us would agree.
But most of us are considerably less sympathetic when a wealthy but crooked Wall Street trader commits a "rational" suicide by overdosing on prescription meds to avoid public disgrace and jail time. As an unrepentant sinner and self-murderer, he risks his own salvation. Better to accept the consequences of his fraud, make restitution, repent and turn hs life around, to become an example to others of the pitfalls of greed and the transformative grace of God. "Rational suicide" in the 21st century The problem today is that principles of autonomy and libertarianism are replacing the values of solidarity and sacrifice, shared moral norms and the common good, precisely at a time when the populations of industrialized nations are largely becoming morally weak, self-indulgent pleasure-seekers for whom the only real sin is to suffer and suffering includes any type of self-denial.Three years ago, I was shocked by the double suicide of a well-to-do retired couple and even more so by the reactions of readers. It was reported that the husband, a retired physician in excellent health, grew concerned that his wife was in an early stage of Alzheimer’s. They still enjoyed their wealth and independence, but didn’t like the prospect of eventually having to lead “lesser” lives in a nursing home when that day came. After a final gourmet meal at their country club, they committed suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage of their luxurious home.Many would find this a tragic end and a terrible example to set for one’s children, grandchildren, neighbors, friends and former patients. Their suicide reflected the utilitarian view that life has value only when it is productive, free of illness, free of suffering, free of unpleasantness. Yet their own children and scores of readers extolled them as models of courage for ending their lives on their own terms and timetable.Laws against suicide reflect certain secular values, for example, to protect the interests of innocent third parties and to maintain the integrity of the medical profession, as Intensive Care Specialist and ethicist Peter Saul has pointed out
.For society, and especially for those in the medical profession, to accede to a person’s decision to kill himself violates the duty we owe to our fellow human beings. It contradicts and undermines our fundamental relational nature as persons created to love and be loved. The acceptance of rational suicide as a morally neutral human act denies the intrinsic value of every human life, as well as the existence of a loving God who suffered for us and suffers with us even today.As the priceless value of each irreplaceable human life is under attack today from terrorists, population controllers, abortion advocates and certain philosophers, the last thing we need is the advocacy and assistance of Philip Nitschke, nudging people to commit “rational suicide.” What we need today is more people who think like John Donne:
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
(from "No Man Is an Island") Susan Wills is Spirituality Editor of Aleteia's English edition.