Dr. Nitschke addresses attendees over the death of murder suspect Nigel Brayley.
Philip Nitschke is the 66-year-old doctor spearheading Australia’s legalized euthanasia debate. He sells cylinders of nitrogen for self-suffocation and advises people on how to get a banned drug called Nembutal, which can cause respiratory arrest. Back in May, we made a documentary in which Nitschke explained how he screened his potential customers to make sure he wasn't providing assistance to suicidal young people. According to him, he’d only provide advice to individuals over 50, and even then only after they were found to be sane.
Recently, these measures have been called into question. In early July Nitschke admitted that he’d given advice to a man named Nigel Brayley, who was neither old—45, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)—nor particularly sane. As it turned out, Brayley was being investigated over two mysterious deaths, including that of his former wife.
As might have been expected, a good deal of controversy has ensued. Jeff Kennett, the chairperson for mental health advocates Beyond Blue, described Nitschke’s actions as “absolutely abhorrent,” while a scathing segment on 7:30 Report, a show on the ABC, concluded that the doctor is basically helping vulnerable people commit suicide. This accusation has now prompted the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency to try and suspend Nitschke’s medical registration.
So what does Nitschke think about all this? Has he changed his position since the last time we spoke? We went to a conference of his in Melbourne on Wednesday where we found him signing up swaths of new elderly members.
A woman signs up for Nitschke's non-profit, Exit International
VICE: Last time we spoke you assured us that your operation had safety nets in place. What happened with Nigel Brayley?
Philip Nitschke: He attended a workshop and that’s not a crime. I mean, the question is, where’s the cut-off point? He gave a very good account of himself in the very brief conversation that we had, and there wasn’t anything about him that suggested he didn’t know what he was doing. And he did know what he was doing!
But you told him how to get Nembutal, although you’d only just met.
He didn’t actually get any advice from me. He talked to me and then he bought his own drugs. He didn’t ask me anything. He didn’t ask me a single question. So, no, he didn’t get any advice.
Why didn't you try to stop him? You’re not a psychologist. How did you know he was sane?
Oh come on. I’m a doctor. You’re not, and certainly the 7:30 Report journalist wasn’t. And she came to the conclusion that he was depressed based on an interview. Anyway, this idea that only a psychologist can decide whether a person should receive information brings out the worst elements of medical paternalism. This idea that unless you’re a very experienced psychologist, absolutely anyone could be harboring a yet-to-be diagnosed psychiatric malady is rubbish. I am also a person who can decide if someone is of sound mind, and Nigel was.
Why do you get to decide?
Why do I get to decide? I simply said he could stay. I didn’t chuck him out of the meeting. Is that a decision? We try to get as many people to these meetings as we can. That’s all.
An empty box of Nembutal, the animal tranquilizer used by Brayley to commit suicide
It seems that you're saying you don’t need a psychologist to determine whether someone can receive suicide information. So where is the age cut-off? What is the safety net that you speak about?
Well, we say 50, but that’s an arbitrary benchmark. It makes sense for every adult to know how to end their life. I don’t just mean when you’re 50, 40, or 35. Everybody should have access to this information.
Even if they’re not sick?
Oh, hell no. In fact, do it before you’re sick. Once you leave it until you’re sick, then you’re leaving it up to that point where you might need assistance and then you’ll really run into trouble with the law. Plan ahead while you’re not sick.
So let's say a young person who is perfectly healthy but suicidal comes to you. They should have access to suicide info?
Of sound mind is the criteria. If they then lapse into depression after that diagnosis, that’s a risk, but it’s not a good reason to be unprepared. And people say that could happen to someone, so therefore no one should have access to this information. And that’s why it’s a false argument and I dispute it. But of course, much of the opposition that’s coming in is predominantly from doctors. And they’re saying that no one should have access to this information except for doctors. It’s just medical paternalism. And that stuff has prevailed for 100 years where doctors know what’s best for everyone. They pat everyone on the head. There, there. We know what’s best. People want to be empowered. They want to make their own decisions and the best that a doctor can do is give out accurate information, but not to judge it. And this judgment by the medical profession is actually offensive, yet it goes on all the time.
Sanity aside, Brayley was being investigated for murder. Doesn’t his suicide get in the way of justice?
Well, I don’t think you can tell someone to stay alive to face 20 years of jail if he doesn’t want to. He made that decision. Should we have stopped him from making that decision because we wanted him to rot in prison? I don’t know. That’s a very hard question to answer.
Do you now regret having anything to do with him?
Oh, only because of the media reports. And especially the ABC. In the case of Nigel, I simply talked to him and he decided he was going to get his own drugs. As was pointed out, Nigel was a person who loved guns. If he hadn’t taken his Nembutal, he would have shot himself or hung himself. He was not going to jail.
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