By Monica Doumit
On Wednesday evening, euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke’s medical license was suspended by the South Australian Board of the Medical Board of Australia.
The Medical Board is permitted to take immediate action in relation to a registered health practitioner if it reasonably believes that because of the practitioner’s conduct, the practitioner poses a serious risk to persons and immediate action is necessary to protect public health.
Dr Nitschke is an Australian medical doctor who has been an advocate for voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide for many years. When euthanasia became legal in the Northern Territory for a brief period in 1996, it was Dr Nitschke who assisted the four people who died before the law was overturned. Since that time, he has been involved in providing advice to people seeking to take their lives.
The decision to suspend Dr Nitschke’s license came following a feature on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on 3 July in which he was asked about the suicide death of Nigel Brayley, a 45-year-old Perth man who was not terminally ill.
Brayley took his own life after attending aseminar run by Dr NItschke’s voluntary euthanasia organisation, Exit International, and speaking to and corresponding with Dr Nitschke on several occasions prior to his death.
Brayley had also obtained a copy of Dr Nitschke’s book, which outlines various methods of suicide, ranking them on a scale of how reliable and peaceful they are. The book provides details on how to obtain lethal drugs which are illegal in Australia, as well as step by step instructions on how to assemble readily available items into deadly weapons. The book is banned in Australia but Dr Nitschke has made it available through an offshore website.
Brayley told Dr Nitschke that he was not terminally ill, but intended to end his life within two weeks.
In the interview, Dr Nitschke was asked whether he believed that he had a duty of care, as a doctor, to tell Brayley to seek help from a medical practitioner or a psychiatrist. Dr Nitschke is not a mental health professional, but denied it was his responsibility to suggest Brayley seek help.
He further denied the suggestion that a healthy person who wished to take his life would necessarily be suffering from depression or other mental health issues, and proposed that there could be such a thing as “rational suicide”.
Dr Nitschke’s actions were criticised by mental health organisations.
As well, believing he had done damage to their cause, advocates for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia distanced themselves from his comments.
At a press conference in Adelaide following the suspension, Dr Nitschke said that the Medical Board said that his view that people have a right to choose suicide was incompatible with his responsibility as a medical professional. He called the action a “political deregistration, brought on by a fundamental difference in beliefs”, and said it was an attempt to silence him and stifle the assisted suicide debate.
Dr Nitschke also used the press conference to cast aspersions on Brayley, labelling him a “serial wife killer.”
The suspension of Dr Nitschke’s license will continue while the Medical Board continues its investigations into his conduct and if they consider it appropriate, the Medical Board will deregister Dr Nitschke as a medical practitioner.
Whatever the outcome, Dr Nitschke has said that his work with Exit International and as a campaigner for assisted suicide will continue because advice given by him in relation to suicide methods does not involve the provision of any type of medical or mental health care.
Despite this, Dr Nitschke has indicated his intention to appeal the decision, and has asked for euthanasia supporters to help fund his legal campaign.
The interview with Dr Nitschke on the 7.30 Report can be found at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-03/families-and-friends-concerned-aobut-whos-being/5570570
And Dr Nitschke’s press conference can be found at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-24/dr-nitschke-attacks-knee-jerk-political/5620854
Monica Doumit has a Bachelor of Medical Science, a Bachelor of Laws and a Masters of Bioethics. She is the Coordinator of Catholic Talk │www.catholictalk.com.au