The world’s foremost promoter of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Australia’s Dr Philip Nitschke, has agreed to cease his advocacy in exchange for retaining his medical registration.
Dr Nitschke has been in the crosshairs of Australia’s medical regulators for years. After a lengthy battle in the courts prompted by the suicides of a number of people whom he had advised or influenced, from the aged to the young, he has run up a white flag. In a deal struck with the Medical Board of Australia (MBA), he accepted 25 conditions in exchange for being allowed to continue as a medical practitioner.
The MBA said that these measures were necessary “to protect the public”. The agreement puts “an end to his involvement in providing any advice or information to any patient or member of the public about how to commit suicide. This includes workshops, the Peaceful Pill Handbook, videos or on-line fora”.
The conditions are onerous. Basically Dr Nitschke must not advise anyone or promote assisted suicide or euthanasia in any form; he may only practice in the Northern Territory; and his work as a doctor must be supervised. For the next two years Dr Nitschke is not supposed to take a patient’s blood pressure without another doctor standing by.
An immediate consequence of the MBA’s decision is that Dr Nitschke has been forced to resign as director of Exit International, the organisation he founded to promote methods of committing suicide.
But his work will continue. His wife, sociologist Fiona Stewart, is taking over as the new director of Exit International. “As I am a public health sociologist and not a medical doctor, I am not under the jurisdiction of the Medical Board,” she said in an Exit press release. “As long as I remain within Australian law, I am free to continue Philip’s message and his pioneering work.”
She says that its “activities will largely continue unabated”. Dr Nitschke’s do-it-yourself suicide workshops will still be held in London, Darwin, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Sydney, Hobart and Adelaide in the weeks before Christmas. Dr Nitschke will attend – but only as an observer.
Dr Nitschke’s response to the restrictions was terse. But Dr Stewart called them an outdated, regressive attack on free speech.
“The conditions which the Medical Board have placed on Philip belong in last century,” she said. “They are an antiquated attempt to stifle debate on this cutting-edge social issue now and for the future. It seems crazy that just a few weeks ago California became the fourth US state to legislate on this issue … Denying people access to information takes one back to the dark ages where Big Brother determined the subject of public debate”.
Earlier this year Dr Nitschke made a submission to the Parliament of the state of Victoria on a right-to-die bill, signing it as “Dr Philip Nitschke PhD MBBS Registered Medical Practitioner / Comedian”.
And just as he is still working as a registered medical practitioner, he is still pursuing his improbable career as a stand-up comedian, telling jokes about suicide and death. Dr Stewart says that “Philip plans to consider fine-tuning his acclaimed [Edinburgh] Fringe comedy show, ‘Dicing with Dr Death’, which received rave 4 star and 5 starreviews at its debut at Ed Fringe in August 2015”. She said he hopes to perform his show in Melbourne in March 2016.
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