By Tom Gourlay
“I am no murderer… Why is it that a doctor should be made to feel like an executioner?” Outspoken pro-euthanasia advocate Dr Phillip Nitschke, founding director of the euthanasia support group EXIT International recently mused over his life’s work and the direction in which he is hoping to take it into the future at a lecture of a recent conference of the same organisation.
Nitschke, most well known for his influential role in the short-lived euthanasia victory in the Northern Territory is at the forefront of the pro-euthanasia movement internationally and an eloquent exponent of the arguments in support of his cause.
In the lecture given earlier last month, Dr Nitschke sketched for his listeners a history of the movement and the development of his own thoughts on the topic.
His own views have put him at odds with other well known exponents of the pro-euthanasia debate who aim at changing the law to allow euthanasia.
For him, the changing of the law is inconsequential and would still leave him with the burden of being executioner, to use his own words.
It is the role of executioner which is a little too much for him to bear.
He advocates the abandonment of the lobbying project to legalise the practise of euthanasia in favour of a techno-driven DIY approach to euthanasia; what he terms ‘safe euthanasia’ – a seemingly self-contradictory term, by which he means a method which is sure to kill, rather than seriously maim the person using it.
For Dr Nitschke, the autonomous will of anyone over the seemingly arbitrary age of 65 should be respected, and the means should be made available to anyone over that age to be able to kill themselves at any time, regardless of their condition physically, emotionally, or mentally.
This separates him from other pro-euthanasia campaigners in that he sees very little need to follow any real legal procedure.
He also claims that even if the laws were changed to allow euthanasia, in many cases it would have to be both physician assisted and tightly controlled; with those seeking euthanasia forced ‘against their will’ it is claimed, to submit to a psychological assessment.
An assessment which is somehow supposed to determine that the one seeking to end his or her own life via euthanasia is ‘of sound mind.’ to ease suffering, even when no cure is ultimately available?” perhaps reworked in a less confrontational manner for example; “The desire to ease suffering which motivates the efforts of Dr Nitschke and other proponents of euthanasia has arguably led to an excessive solution which ignores successes in branches of medicine which seek to ease suffering, even when no cure is ultimately available.”
The palliative care movement for example, which is developing with increasing rapidity across the globe, not least of all here in Australia, is one that seeks to ease the suffering of the dying, and to allow them and their loved ones to come to terms with what really is a natural part of life.
The desire to ease suffering which seemingly motivates the efforts of Dr Nitschke and other proponents of euthanasia has led in their case to an excessive solution which ignores successes in branches of medicine which seek to ease suffering, even when no cure is ultimately available.
Palliative care is real medicine, in that it seeks to treat the person in his or her fullness with the love and care which is their due by virtue of their mere humanity.
It allows the patient to come to terms with the natural process of dying, and it allows their loved ones surrounding them to be present with them in the last stages of their life, free of the burden which so often accompanies the thought of being responsible for the death of one whom they love.
Palliative care is not however merely prolonging life, or a malicious elongation of potential suffering.
This is a popular misconception often spread by pro-euthanasia supporters.
Palliative care is in fact something else entirely.
The aim of palliative care is to ease the suffering of one in the final stages of dying.
To put to use the wisdom of the long and venerable medical tradition to alleviate pain and enhance the comfort of the dying, to allow them to die in peace.
Another case for euthanasia is that society should respect the autonomous will of the sufferer, regardless of what they want.
In many cases, and particularly in the case of Dr Nitschke, this autonomy is all that is sacred, more sacred than life itself.
Unfortunately for Nitschke, the apparent nature of mental illness and despair seem to allude him entirely.
The soundness of one’s mind is increasingly being defined out of any relevant considerations.
In his lecture cited above, Nitschke approvingly refers to a statement made by the now deceased Dutch Supreme Court Judge Mr Huib Drion, who claimed that the seemingly arbitrary age of 65, rather than any medical or psychological assessment, should be the only criterion which should determine whether someone should have access to the technology that would enable one to kill him/herself, in this case a pill.
What is perhaps most confronting about such an argument is the incongruence between the taking of this pill for someone aged over 65 being termed as ‘euthanasia’, while someone younger who ingests a similar poison, or acts with a similar intent to kill his/herself is suicidal.
Suicide itself, whether or not it is referred to as euthanasia is always tragic and often motivated by a fear of carrying on, a fear of letting life unfold, a fear of losing control.
Sadly we see that suicide is most often a result of severe depression or anxiety, or another form of mental illness which has not been treated effectively.
Traditionally, suicide has been prohibited by the law, and psychological counselling as well as psychiatric treatment has been made available to people who are entertaining suicidal thoughts.
What is being witnessed here in discussions about euthanasia is a growing societal-schizophrenia, which on the one hand rightly discourages suicide and, acknowledging its link to mental illness, works actively to prevent it across the board; and on the other hand, argues of the right each individual has to end his or her own life regardless of their health and/or mental condition.
Ultimately euthanasia is not a loving option.
It tells the sufferer that they are a burden and not worth the time or the care that we ought give them.
To that end, for someone like Dr Nitschke, technology is the saviour; the way out of this feeling of being an executioner.
It will put in the hands of everybody a way to ensure that they will die when they want to, regardless of their condition.
This is not true salvation, but rather one other way of further removing ourselves from the weak, who need our strength; the suffering who need our care; and the dying, who more than anything need our love, rather than providing them with the highly suggestive option of a ‘safe’ way of killing themselves.