Assisted suicide, Voluntary Euthanasia, Peaceful Pill Handbook

Friday, August 21, 2009

“Doing a Debbie”- Using the Media and Courts to Effect Change

“Doing a Debbie”- Using the Media and Courts to Effect Change - Opinion 9Aug09

The news stories that have captured global attention this week are that of UK MS sufferer Debbie Purdy & quadriplegic, Chris Rossiter in Perth Western Australia. Both Debbie & Chris have successfully used the public depiction of their plight to draw attention to the existing unjust legislation that controls & constrains their end of life options.

This week a breakthrough came in Debbie's long-running battle to establish whether her partner Omar would be at legal risk if he were to help her travel to Switzerland to take advantage of that country's assisted suicide legislation. The House of Lords decided that Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, needs to provide rules for the courts in such cases. Understandably unimpressed by this announcement, the DPP has stated that any guidelines he formulates will apply to all cases, not just those of people helping loved ones to board a flight to Switzerland.

Debbie was thrilled and Exit congratulates her on her efforts. That said we are disappointed that Ms Purdy has once again chosen to lash out at our activities, claiming she wants “safeguards, counselling and medical advice” before any information on end of life choices should be provided. “Nitschke” she said, “does not insist on safeguards, making his work dangerous to vulnerable people”

While this is a re-statement of a common-enough sentiment by some in the end of life choices movement - that doctors must control the process of being helped to die & that suicide assistance should only be available to those seriously physically ill - Exit's rapidly growing member of well elderly folk suggest there are plenty of people who disagree with Debbie. The average age of Exit members is 75 years. Most say they see their access to information and hence knowledge of their choices as an insurance policy for the future. Surely this is not difficult to understand?

Paradoxically, Debbie’s win in House of Lords is likely to be a boon to the DIY model of end of life information and decision-making. With the codification of assisted suicide laws by the DPP in the UK, we should expect significant liberalisation of the circumstances in which it is lawful to provide assistance. The fear that currently stops many from taking the steps needed to obtain their own supply of Nembutal may well dissipate.

At Exit's forthcoming series of November UK workshops (scheduled for London, Edinburgh & Dublin), we expect that demand for end of life choices knowledge in general, & reliable DIY strategies in particular, will be strongly, largely as a result this clarification by the DPP. Debbie Purdy has worked hard for the right to safely go to Switzerland to die. Her legacy is much broader, in that it will almost certainly result in better access to the means of a peaceful, reliable death without leaving home.


In Australia, Exit member quadriplegic Chris Rossiter has decided he’s had enough. He wants a peaceful death, either by travelling to Switzerland or, if that isn’t possible, by exercising his right to refuse fluids & nutrition. Neither course will be easy for a man who is unable to move & totally dependent on care for his every need.

His Exit-appointed lawyer, high-profile solicitor John Hammond, will be representing Chris next Friday when the matter goes before the Chief Justice in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Exit hopes that Justice Martin will acknowledge Chris' right to exercise his rational choice, thereby reassuring Chirs' Brightwater Nursing Home of the lawfulness of complying with Chris' stated wishes.

However, if Chris does choose to refuse food & fluids, we need to be clear about what is going on. If Chris is allowed to make this choice, we - society via our lawmakers - are effectively condoning a form of state-sanctioned torture. Sure, Chris will be given “sedation”, but it is naïve to think that this process is simply a case of sleeping towards your own death.

Last but not least there is an intriguing twist to Chris' story. Chris has stated repeatedly that he wants his death to matter, he wants to effect change. To this end, when Exit was approached by Robert Chua, Founder & Chairman of Hong Kong TV's 'Health and Lifestyle' channel, suggesting the establishment of a 24/7 webcam to monitor Chris’ journey, Exit immediately took the idea to Chris who supported the idea. As I mentioned Chris, if we are going to acknowledge that a death by starvation is lawful, let’s ensure the world knows what is involved.

I will be travelling to Hong Kong next Friday and will join Robert Chua in launching his new 'Euthanasia' weekly program and to join several TV debates & interviews on end of life choice. The establishment of a Hong Kong chapter of Exit is also planned.A highlight of the planned media will be a live cross to Debbie Purdy in northern England. No doubt we will have to agree to disagree that not everyone will fit her idea of who and who does not deserve access to end of life information.

Philip Nitschke
Darwin, August 2009