Euthanasia protagonists disagree over cost of living

22 August 2003

By Fiona Curruthers

Dr Philip Nitschke, Australia's leading lobbyist for voluntary euthanasia, has condoned the use of euthanasia for severely handicapped or sick babies.

"If a person is born and one can see it will lead to a life not worth living, as assessed by the person whose child it is, it might be appropriate to end it," Dr Nitschke told a University audience. He said it was "an obscenity" when the medical profession did everything possible to keep extremely sick or handicapped babies alive.

During Life Week, from 11 to 15 August, two of the University's high profile alumni went head-to-head in a debate in the Great Hall over whether euthanasia should be legal.

Dr Nitschke was opposed by the Rev Professor Anthony Fisher, soon to become the youngest Catholic bishop in Australia at the age of 43.

Professor Fisher opened his case against euthanasia by arguing that when the issue was first raised, it was about "intending to shorten a life with a supposedly merciful motivation". It was also intended for use by those with terminal illnesses, who were still capable of making a rational decision.

However, Professor Fisher said the pro-euthanasia movement had now lost sight of that intention and euthanasia had become a dangerous tool with which to devalue the lives of the most vulnerable members of society.

He reminded the audience of Dr Nitschke's comments in a radio interview that euthanasia pills should be available in supermarkets and suicide recipes should be available to teenagers.

"Euthanasia actually reduces the freedom of the terminally ill, the handicapped, the frail and the elderly," he said. "It sends out the message that these people are dispensable. It's not putting granny out of her misery, but putting us out of our misery because care can be really hard".

Professor Fisher claimed that in Holland, where euthanasia is legal, 6000 individuals had been killed without their permission. "It's gone beyond the supposedly tight regulations," he said.

Dr Nitschke, who made world headlines when he helped four people to die in the Northern Territory, where euthanasia was legal from 1995 to 1997, replied that the key issue was simply a person's right to choose how and when they should die.

"People are pushing towards strategies where they can exercise their own options, strategies where anybody can peacefully end their life at any time," he said.

He cited the case of an 80-year-old academic who recently got in touch with him not because she was ill, but "because she had just had enough and wanted to know her options".

"People's reasons for exercising the option of euthanasia are complex and varied," he said. "Don't slam the door in their faces and say 'we'll give you more music therapy until you like living'."

He argued that in practice, suicide was difficult and caused great anxiety. Whereas medical and veterinary practitioners had easy access to suitable drugs, the general population would have difficulty choosing a safe, peaceful suicide option.

"I believe that my life is mine to assess," Dr Nitschke said. "I've got my bottle of Nefrotel in the cupboard and people that come to me say, 'I want to be like you doc'."

At one point in the debate a young woman in the audience stood up and told Dr Nitschke that she had been depressed and suicidal for two years. Now she felt better, she "thanked God she lived in a country that promoted life".

"My major concern is that we'd be building a culture of death," she said. Dr Nitschke replied that he didn't believe in God. "I support your right to die any way you want," he said. "But I ask you to leave me alone."

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