An Australian euthanasia activist known as ‘Dr Death’ will run workshops around the country this week demonstrating methods of committing suicide to elderly or terminally ill people.
Dr Philip Nitschke was initially held and questioned at Heathrow about the planned workshops, but has now been allowed into the country.
There are concerns that vulnerable and elderly attendees of the meetings in Bournemouth, Brighton, Stroud and Glasgow will be encouraged to end their lives.
Last year Dr Nitschke’s organisation, Exit International, said it had targeted Bournemouth because “there are lots of older people there”. Local councillors prevented that meeting, but there is no indication that the authorities plan to intervene again this year.
Dr Nitschke’s website says the workshops will provide information about the use of Helium and Nitrogen to commit suicide, possible means of acquiring illegal suicide drugs from overseas, and the option of travelling to the Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas.
He is also the inventor of a suicide machine, which administers lethal drugs into the body after a button is pressed three times.
Dr Nitschke’s campaigning led to the temporary legalisation of assisted suicide in an area of Australia, but the federal government reversed the decision nine months later.
During the intervening period Dr Nitschke helped four people to die using his machine.
Alec Russell, a vicar and chaplain of Oak Haven Hospice in Lymington, Hampshire, told the BBC: “The difficulty may be if people who are psychologically unable to think as clearly as they might, or people who are still quite young and forming their opinions, might be influenced by him inappropriately.
“As a hospice chaplain I have had contact with several patients who because of long-term chronic conditions have attempted to take their own lives.
“In every case they have said afterwards that they are glad to be alive and they’re glad it didn’t work.”
Margo MacDonald MSP, who is currently attempting to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland, and Debbie Purdy, who has so far failed in her court bid to challenge the law, have both distanced themselves from Dr Nitschke’s controversial methods.
However, campaigners warn that any weakening of the current ban on assisted suicide in the UK could put vulnerable people in danger of being pressurised into committing suicide.
In Holland, where voluntary euthanasia is legal, there are serious concerns that the law is being abused.
One 2001 study suggested that only 54 per cent of assisted suicides were recorded. In 2004 a group of Dutch doctors formally reported themselves for killing 22 terminally ill newborn babies. They called for the Dutch Government to legalise infant euthanasia.
The British Medical Association and the General Medical Council hold a firm stance against the practice.
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”
“A different life”
The Times recently reported the story of Matt Hampson, a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human. She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.