Interview by Le-Min Lim
Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) -- For more than a decade, Philip Nitschke says he taught thousands in the Western world how to end their lives “without making a mess of it.” Now, he wants to bring that knowledge to China, where even the talk of death is taboo.
Nitschke, 62, is an Australian who claims to be the first doctor to have administered a legal and lethal injection to someone in 1996 who asked to die. He argues that a person’s rational decision to die should be respected. Vincent Kan of the Samaritan Befrienders of Hong Kong, a non-profit group which counsels the suicidal, calls such self-harm “very wrong.”
“This is a cutting-edge social issue and there are going to be strong feelings on both sides and there is going to be name-calling,” Nitschke says in an interview. He is dubbed “Dr. Death” by some media and pro-life advocates. “I don’t like the name, am sick of it, but it doesn’t matter.”
Of the 10 to 15 e-mails he gets every day from people asking how to kill themselves painlessly, “a growing fraction” are coming from Asia, with one or two from China, he says in an interview. China’s graying population, among the world’s fastest-growing, faces an uncertain future as the nation’s cradle-to- grave welfare network, provided by state-owned companies, all but disintegrated in the last 20 years in the privatization drive. Assisted suicide should be studied in China as the nation, like the U.S., faces a growing medical bill, he says.
At the end of 2008, one in twelve people in China -- or 109.6 million -- were 65 years old and above; in 2020, it will be one in eight, according to state-run China Daily.
Nitschke, helping to promote “Dignified Departure,” a 13- hour, pay-television program on doctor-assisted suicide in Hong Kong and mainland China, says the region wants “reliable information” on how to die painlessly. The program debuts next month in China on the “Family Health” channel, run by the official China National Radio.
“The Chinese don’t want to talk about death; they think it’s bad luck,” said Robert Chua, 63, chairman of the Health & Lifestyle Broadcast Co., which made the program. “It’s not death, but how we die, that will become an important question for China to think about.”
China’s Ministry of Health didn’t respond to calls asking for comment.
The top worry among Chinese is of medical costs rising, according to state-run People’s Daily, citing a survey by the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released at the end of 2006. Between 1980 and 2005, per-capita disposable income in China rose about 20 times, while health-spending climbed 133 times, the state-run People’s Daily said.
Nitschke said he sees enough interest in Hong Kong to start “a contact point” for his company, Exit International, where members can meet. There were 17.4 suicides for every 100,000 people in Hong Kong in 2005, higher than the global average, the World Health Organization says. On the mainland, suicide kills about 250,000 people a year and is the leading cause of death in the 15-34 age-group, China National Radio reported on its Web site, citing an official.
In Chinese culture, which stresses duty to family, a person mulling suicide because of illness is more likely than his Western counterpart to consult his kin, said Philip Kwong, a pastor and counselor at Echo Valley Evangelistic Association for the Handicaps Ltd.
Nitschke, an atheist, says human life is no more important than an animal’s and deserves no exalted status or special ethical treatment. Humans should have the same rights as their pets to receive lethal injections that end pain, he says.
Nitschke says he thinks everyone of sound mind above 50 years old should be allowed to die with the help of a doctor; until recently, he believed that chance should only be given to the terminally ill.
Nitschke says the change of mind came after meeting many people who were “tired of life; they got to a point where death is what they want.” Asked if he would choose an early death if very ill, he says he doesn’t know.
“When people find themselves looking down at their death and mortality, I see people change,” says Nitschke, who speaks with rapid-fire speed, stopping only to gasp for air. “I would imagine I’m going to be one of those people who are demanding we try every available drug to keep me alive.”
Any act by a doctor that directly or indirectly helps a person end his own life qualifies as assisted suicide, according to Dr. Marie-Charlotte Bouesseau, 51, the Geneva-based head of the World Health Organization’s ethics and health department.
Dr. Cecilia Sepulveda, in charge of WHO’s cancer program, including palliative care, said the organization doesn’t have a position on assisted suicide, but doesn’t support any attempt to “hasten or promote death” because medicine is advanced enough to give the very ill comfortable and affordable care.
Assisted suicide is outlawed in most countries, including Australia, China and Hong Kong. Legalized doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill is illegal in most U.S. States.
Nitschke gives information on drug-induced suicide to the 5,000 members of Exit International who pay about A$100 ($83) a year in fees, and through a 300-page, illustrated publication, “The Peaceful Pill Handbook,” that’s banned in Australia and sells online in the U.S. for $75. Nitschke says he doesn’t sell those lethal drugs, and just informs where to get them and how much to take to ensure death.
Debbie Purdy, a British woman with multiple sclerosis who won a landmark suit in July to have the U.K. law on assisted suicide clarified, said she doesn’t back Nitschke’s position on giving the public access to information on drug-induced suicide.
Chua, one of the first overseas TV executives to land broadcast rights in mainland China, says his station has no position on assisted death, though he’s personally for it and would choose it in case of serious illness.
“Whatever position you take,” Chua says, “it’s better to face the issue than sweep it under the carpet.”