April 18, 2024

Nitschke loses legal battle to practice as a doctor

Tribunal rules that his activities would undermine public confidence in the medical profession and pose a serious risk to public safety.

Australian euthanasia activist Dr Philip Nitschke remains deregistered after a ruling that his activities would undermine public confidence in the medical profession and posed a serious risk to public safety. Nitschke says that he will appeal the decision by the Northern Territory Health Professional Review Tribunal.

The controversial doctor has been in the limelight ever since he killed four patients when euthanasia was legal in the Northern Territory for several months in the mid-90s. The Medical Board of Australia disapproved of his activism, but failed to restrain him. However last year a Perth man asked Nitschke for advice about suicide. He obliged and the man later killed himself. The MBA contends that Nitschke should have referred him to a medical practitioner, while Nitschke has argued that the man had a right to rational suicide even though he was not terminally ill.

Nitschke’s lawyer says it is an error of law for the tribunal not to consider the “enormous body of medical literature addressing the issue of rational suicide”. However the tribunal insisted that the only legal issue is whether his actions are consistent with the code of conduct for Australian doctors.

The evidence cited in the Tribunal’s judgement gives an insight into the mind of the man who is probably the world’s best known apologist for an unrestricted right to suicide:

Nitschke is a qualified medical doctor but devotes nearly all his time to promoting euthanasia in Australia and around the world. He sees only a few patients a year on trips back to his home in the Northern Territory. He failed to fulfil his compulsory professional development requirements as a doctor. Instead he devoted his time to keeping abreast of developments in euthanasia.

Nitschke admitted in his testimony that that had become rather nonchalant about requests for help in committing suicide: “So in that sense, I suppose I’m hardened to them. I’m not surprised when I get them and I behave to them perhaps on a way which some would see as insensitive.”

Depression, even clinical depression, is not a contraindication for euthanasia. The only criterion is whether a client is rational. “I’ve met people that are well and say they want to end their lives. Are they depressed? Probably a bit. … everyone’s a bit depressed. The question is: have they lost the ability to give insightful rational decisions? No. … So we’re seeing all sorts of people come along. Tired of life people.”

As long as people have a reason short of phobias about invading Martians, suicide is an acceptable option for Nitschke. “Now financial concerns are one such example of what we would describe  as a non-medical reason for wanting to engage in the act of suicide. Now in terms of whether I would engage with them further, I would probably say ‘are you certain?’, ‘are you sure?’ And if the person said ‘yes I’m certain. I’m sure because this is such a catastrophe that this is the only way I can see out of it and I have thought it all through’, I would say that’s entirely a reasonable course for you to take if it’s a course that you decide is in your best interests. It’s not for me to come along and second judge.”

Dr – or Mr – Nitschke is not letting the grass grow under his feet while he appeals his deregistration. He is scheduled to appear as a stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. He expects to be criticised for “trivialising” the topic, but he has been planning a new career in comedy for some time.

Nitschke was invited by a British comedian, Mel Moon, who has a terminal illness and is the youngest member of his suicide promotion group, Exit International. “Despite his notorious reputation, he’s actually quite funny,” she says. “Not as natural as a stand-up, but more like a witty after-dinner speaker.” 

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assisted suicide
Philip Nitschke