This story is over 5 years old.


If Port Arthur Killer Martin Bryant Wants to Die, Should We Let Him?

Bryant has attempted suicide several times. The Ethics Centre's Dr Matthew Beard asks whether prison officers should let him go, instead of spending life in jail.

It's been 20 years since the Port Arthur massacre, and Martin Bryant still has more than 1000 years to serve on his non-parole period. He is, according to reports, not doing well. Bryant is relatively isolated, morbidly obese and has attempted suicide multiple times behind bars. And his anguish is costing taxpayers about $150 a day. This means Bryant's detainment has already totalled over a million dollars. So if Bryant is sitting in abject misery, wanting to end his life while keeping him alive is costing us a mint, wouldn't it be better for everyone if we stopped preventing his suicide attempts?


It's a grisly hypothetical but it's worth engaging with for a couple of reasons. First, it speaks to a range of social issues Australia faces at the moment. And second, it's probably a question that staff at Risdon Prison, where Bryant is held, have also asked themselves.

Let's start with the most uncomfortable argument against letting Bryant die: that he should be forced to do as much of his allotted sentence as is possible. Justice can't be dealt here because his life is too short, but we can ensure he is punished as much as is possible. The earlier he dies, the less he is punished.

So, in the same way that we prevent inmates from doing lots of legal things—like making phone calls, going to the shops, or voting—to ensure justice is served, we might also prevent them from killing themselves.

However, a justice system should only be dealing out punishment that's just on its own terms. In Australia, this means respecting and upholding the basic dignity of every person. It follows that we shouldn't be comfortable with causing unnecessary suffering for any person, regardless of what they've done.

If our reasons for keeping Bryant alive are more about denying him mercy than preserving his life for its own sake, there's cause for concern. One goal of our justice system should be the preservation of human dignity.

With all that said, I think it would be unethical to tell staff to stand by and let Bryant kill himself. For one thing, it would probably open the state of Tasmania up to a range of negligence charges for failing in their duty of care. For another, it's tough to anticipate the psychological toll turning a blind eye to Bryant's attempts would have on Risdon staff.


It's one thing for Bryant to try—or even succeed—to kill himself. It's another for wardens of the state to help him on his way.

Suicide is legal in Australia though assisted suicide remains against the law—despite overwhelming public support for right to die legislation. This makes it relatively easy to restrict Bryant's right to kill himself, for now. But does support for Bryant's right to die flow logically from general support for right to die legislation, as euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke has argued?

The answer depends somewhat on what we think about our prison system.

The general theme behind most assisted suicide campaigns in Australia is that people suffering unbearably or incurably should have the right to die. Does Bryant's plight satisfy either of these conditions? Well, he's not physically ill, so he can hardly said to be incurably suffering (unless we consider psychological illness which we'll come back to). So the question here is: Is Martin Bryant's suffering unbearable?

Let's assume it is. This suggests a life sentence in prison was a fate worse than death. Permitting Bryant the right to die on the basis of his suffering would be an indictment on the entire prison system, which is housing him.

The main reason Australia doesn't permit capital punishment is because we believe human beings, regardless of what they've done, shouldn't be treated in certain ways. If life sentences—our alternative to the death penalty—are seen to more suffering than death itself our entire humanitarian justification falls away.


What's more, giving prisoners the right to die might be a way of dodging the bigger issue: fixing our prison systems. If life without parole is so intolerable that death is preferable, allowing people to die seems like a pretty brutish way to fix the problem. Harder, but better, would be to address a prison system so severe it leads people to consider dying as the easy way out.

And by permitting prisoners the right to die under those conditions we would avoid treating the more systemic injustice our prison system would have become under those circumstances.

Philip Nitschke believes, "A life imprisoned is a life wasted." If he's right, which I think is up for serious debate, this might give us reason to support assisted suicide for prisoners. However, it might also give us cause to question our justification of life sentences with no hope of parole.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed punishing criminals—including with the death penalty—was a way of respecting their rationality. If we refused to do so, we would be failing to accept that criminals had chosen to commit a crime with an understanding of the consequences.

Seen this way, we would have to conclude one of two things: First, that Bryant fully understood that life in prison would be the consequence of his crime. Respecting him as a competent, adult citizen would require us to see him complete his punishment.

Or second, Bryant didn't understand the consequences of his crime to begin with. And there's an interesting case to be made here, given he has an IQ of 66: the equivalent of an 11-year-old. If this is the case, we'd have to wonder if prison is the appropriate place for him or whether he could demonstrate the rational capacity necessary for doctors to assist in his suicide.

Rational capacity brings us to the question of psychological suffering. If a life sentence is so lacking in meaning that is causes unbearable psychological suffering, there's a case for assisted suicide.

This suggests that if our prisons lack the resources to treat inmates whose psychological suffering could be made bearable, or the suffering of some inmates was so severe as to be beyond the help of experts, a sentence to life without parole wouldn't be morally preferable to the death penalty.

Dr Matthew Beard is a moral philosopher at The Ethics Centre.