In his native Australia, 66-year-old Philip Nitschke is known as “Dr. Death” — but he sees himself as a human rights advocate who connects people with the tools to end their lives on their own terms.
Like the late American doctor Jack Kevorkian, who assisted more than 130 suicides and served eight years in prison for murder before dying in 2011, Nitschke has become the controversial face of the euthanasia movement in Australia.
As the founder of Exit International, a nonprofit group that supports the legalization of voluntary euthanasia, Nitschke has been helping people find lethal drugs to kill themselves since 1997. He also co-authored The Peaceful Pill Handbook, a guide that lays out how to end your life. Though widely available on the internet, the book is banned in Australia.
'It has become big business screaming for blood — mainly my blood.'
Now Nitschke is facing the revocation of his medical license by the Medical Board of Australia for supporting the suicide of an alleged murderer who might have been distraught that police were focusing on his role in the death of his wife. The board believes that Nitschke, as a doctor, should have referred him to psychiatric help in order to prevent the suicide.
Police are also investigating whether he assisted in the suicide of a terminally-ill euthanasia advocate — a crime punishable in Australia by up to 14 years in prison.
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“It has become big business screaming for blood — mainly my blood,” he told VICE News, referring to mental health groups that have been critical of Exit International’s pro-euthanasia work.
“There’s a lot of anger,” he said. “They’re depicting it as not just helping a person who is seriously ill, but depressed people who want to end their lives.”
Nitschke will appear before the medical board on Wednesday to discuss his role in the suicide of Nigel Brayley, a 45-year-old from Perth who ended his life after police began investigating the 2011 death of his wife Lina as a homicide. Her body had been found in a quarry at the bottom of a cliff, and her death was initially thought to be an accident. Police are also investigating the disappearance of Brayley’s previous girlfriend in 2005.
In early May, Brayley’s body was found in the cemetery where his mother is buried. He had taken Nembutal, a brand name for the powerful sedative pentobarbital, which is popular among voluntary euthanasia advocates.
Nitschke was also recently interrogated by police about the July 28 suicide of his friend Max Bromson, a 66-year-old former businessman who was terminally ill with bone cancer. Bromson, who had campaigned for the senate as a Voluntary Euthanasia Party candidate, also took Nembutal and died in an Adelaide motel room surrounded by supportive family members. He left behind a note saying that he was responsible for his decision, and filmed his death to show that no one had assisted him.
Bromson purchased Nembutal from China as part of Exit International’s “buyer’s club.” Brayley attended an Exit International workshop earlier this year and acquired the drug online.
Nembutal was once widely used as a sleep aid in the United States, and is now used primarily in veterinary medicine. The drug is the only form of injectable pentobarbital permitted in the United States. After learning that American prisons were using it in lethal injections, the drug’s manufacturer overhauled its distribution in America, triggering a shortage. It has become known as “death in a bottle.”
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Years ago, Exit International would send members overseas to places like Mexico and Peru to buy the drug in liquid form over the counter at veterinary pharmacies, but today members typically join together in a buyer’s club to order Chinese-manufactured Nembutal online. To ensure quality control, Exit International tests the drug’s purity at a laboratory in Darwin in the Northern Territory.
“It’s a common strategy to make sure they don’t get cheated or scammed,” Nitschke said. Chinese Nembutal comes as a powder, he added, “and one of the benefits is it comes in a letter, rather than a parcel, in small 10 to 15 gram amounts.”
A recent VICE documentary illustrated how Exit International has also entered the business of selling nitrogen canisters, which are typically used for brewing, to those who wish to kill themselves. Nitschke described how breathing nitrogen gas within a plastic bag placed over the head can enable a “peaceful and reliable death at the time of their choosing.”
'He didn’t want saving.'
He said that the organization was in “total chaos” last week as police seized phones and computers from its Adelaide office. “We had serious police raids and groups turned up on our doorstep, issuing search warrants looking for Nembutal.”
On July 23, the Medical Board of Australia suspended Nitschke from practicing medicine for his role in Brayley’s suicide, citing the ethical concern that Brayley was depressed but not terminally ill. The board ruled that Nitschke presented a “serious risk to the health and safety of the public.” He is appealing the decision at his hearing this week.
“I didn’t have much to do with him,” he said of Brayley. “He attended a few workshops and I talked briefly to him. He was younger than the usual age.”
Brayley purchased the drug on his own, and Nitschke said that he didn’t personally advise him. Brayley wrote in an email to Nitschke that his life was not going well and that he might end it.
“I read his message but didn’t want any intervention or involvement,” Nitschke said.
Nitschke explained that he became aware of the suicide when he was asked about the case during an interview on national television. He became aware of the homicide investigation after Brayley’s death.
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The medical board wanted to know “why I didn’t save a person in trouble from himself,” he said. “But he didn’t want saving.”
He noted that he hadn’t practiced medicine for a decade in his work with Exit International, and therefore had no “duty of care” to prevent the suicide. Because Exit International is not a medical practice and Nitschke was advocating as a private citizen, he doesn’t think that he should be held to medical standards.
Exit International’s workshops have ballooned in size over the years, Nitschke said, with more than 300 people attending at a time — even those who are not terminally ill. When asked how many people have consulted with Exit International, he answered, “Thousands. But that doesn’t mean they use the drugs. They just want them in case. They are comforted.” Nitschke believes that people are better off planning ahead.
“In the United States, support is very high for a physician being able to provide a mentally competent, not depressed, terminally ill patient with a prescription for medication that the patient could ingest to achieve a peaceful death,” Kathryn Tucker, an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, told VICE News.
Tucker, who served as counsel for the end-of-life nonprofit Compassion and Choices, noted that support is lacking for people other than such patients to obtain drugs for suicide — “nor does any law, whether statutory or judicial precedent, permit such,” she said.
But Nitschke said that public opinion is changing in the US and in Australia.
“More and more baby boomers reaching their twilight years don’t want to be beholden to an adjudicating body,” he said. “It’s no one else’s business. I make this decision myself. I decide and don't have to have medical reasons. I can be tired of life.”
He added that there are no precedents for a case like his in Australia.
“When these cases find their way to the courtrooms, it’s usually a family member helping someone they love, and the judges are hesitant to apply the severest penalties,” he said. “But with me, they feel I exceeded the law. We just don’t know how it will go.”