radically accepting finitude
Ethicist Peter Singer has questioned the Medical Board of Australia’s decision to suspend euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke’s medical registration, and says the only way to protect vulnerable people from him is to legalise voluntary euthanasia.
In an interview with Fairfax Media, the professor of bioethics at Princeton University said it would be both ‘‘concerning’’ and ‘‘extraordinary’’ if the medical board had suspended Dr Nitschke because he believed people without a terminal illness could make a rational decision to die.
‘‘I think suicide can be rational in the absence of terminal illness and I think I could find you dozens or hundreds of philosophers who would think that … I think if you know you are going to spend the next 20 years in prison, suicide is a rational option – not for everybody, but for some people,’’ he said, referring to the case of Nigel Brayley, a Perth man who communicated with Dr Nitschke before taking his own life while he was being investigated over his wife’s death.
Euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke. Photo: Ryan Osland
In July, Dr Nitschke said the board suspended his registration because his view that ‘‘people have a right to choose suicide is incompatible with his responsibility as a doctor” and because he posed “a serious risk to public health and safety that needs to be managed”.
This followed media reports that Mr Brayley, 45, was suspected to be suffering depression, had attended an Exit International workshop in February ,and communicated with Dr Nitschke before he took his own life in May.
Dr Nitschke has confirmed that Mr Brayley attended an Exit workshop, but said he had not lost his capacity to make a rational decision. He said he did not give Mr Brayley medical advice and had no obligation to refer him to a psychiatrist. He said Mr Brayley was a “wife killer” and that his death was “a clear case of rational suicide”.
Dr Nitschke has appealed the board’s ‘‘political’’ decision and says those who claimed Mr Brayley was depressed were fundamentalist Christians.
The case has intensified criticism of Dr Nitschke, with several Australian parents claiming their adult children took their own lives after accessing Exit International information. The Australian Medical Association, beyondblue and Dying with Dignity have all since questioned his actions, too, with some accusing him of being irresponsible.
The Medical Board of Australia has not detailed its reasons for suspending Dr Nitschke’s registration, except to say it is trying to ‘‘keep the public safe, while other investigations or processes continue’’.
Professor Singer said it would be strange for the board to make ‘‘a moral judgment and by no means a universally accepted moral judgment’’ about rational suicide.
‘‘Using that as a grounds for suspending a doctor’s medical licence, I think is very strange,’’ he said.
In response to concerns about depressed people accessing Exit International information, Professor Singer said: ‘‘I think the solution to that is to legalise voluntary euthanasia and restrict it to medical practitioners, and then Philip won’t have to do this … I think he feels he is a crusader against a law that unnecessarily restricts people’s right to die.”
Professor Singer, who was in Australia to attend the Queensland University of Technology’s International Conference on End of Life last week, said he believed the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide was inevitable in Australia. ‘‘I think it will come as the population ages … I think we’ll get voting pressure for it,’’ he said.
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au.