Killing me softly with his song

This month, a Australian law aimed squarely at crushing the life’s work of one man came into effect. It is now illegal in Australia to provide advice over the internet on how to commit suicide and the man in question, Dr Philip Nitschke, is considering a self-imposed exile in New Zealand as a result. But let’s give this news some positive spin. Finally the world’s most prominent euthanasia campaigner is getting the recognition he deserves. How often does the machinery of Parliament grind and whirr to accommodate a single citizen?

In fact, after reading his recent manifesto, Killing Me Softly, published with his partner, Dr Fiona Stewart, I’d like to nominate him for one of the government awards which are doled out on Australia Day next week (January 26). Not for services to medicine, but for services to commerce. This remarkable book reveals a new side of Nitschke: the innovative new-economy entrepreneur of DIY death.

Nitschke’s ideas are relevant everywhere, not just in Australia and New Zealand. This week’s decision by the US Supreme Court supporting Oregon’s assisted suicide law probably ensures that euthanasia is on a firm legal footing in the US. In a 6-3 ruling, the Court set down that he prescription of drugs to produce death is a “legitimate medical purpose”. With a toehold in the US, the euthanasia movement is set to scale new heights. And no one is more qualified to inspire them than Philip Nitschke, who describes himself as "the world’s leading authority on voluntary euthanasia, being the first doctor in the world to legally administer VE". (Euthanasia was legal for a few months in 1996 and 1997 in the Northern Territory, a self-governing jurisdiction of Australia.)

Dr Nitschke has emerged at a key stage in the euthanasia movement. Most people see voluntary euthanasia as a desperate escape from unbearable pain. But with good palliative care, the days of justifying lethal injections with lurid descriptions of excruciating torment are largely over. Dying can still be an uncomfortable business marked by weakness, dependency and lack of control, but these do not suffice for euthanasia.

So if Nitschke had continued to focus on unrelievable pain, he might have been out of a job. But -- and this gives the measure of the man -- he has swiftly adapted to the new market environment. Now he services people who are simply tired of life and wish to die. In short, Dr Nitschke has reinvented himself as a universal suicide provider.

Nitschke's insight has been to recognise that assisted suicide is no longer about compassionate medicine, but about technology. Through his work on the web, he is gradually transforming voluntary euthanasia from a mere philosophy into an open-source internet enterprise. He must have been thinking about this for a while. Back in 2001 he said in an interview with the National Review that his “peaceful pill” should be available in supermarkets. He has been pilloried for this remark, but he sticks to it in Killing Me Softly: "it remains a metaphor that is useful in any discussion about universal access".  

For years, euthanasia has been tainted by its association with the Nazis, but Nitschke’s work amounts to a repudiation of this totalitarian, bureaucratised, top-down model. Nitschke stands for nimble, entrepreneurial, consumer-driven euthanasia. His genius is to have developed an open source internet model – a bit like Linux. "Where choice in dying are concerned, the Internet is allowing us to share our ideas with other activists around Australia and the globe," he writes. Already, if you search for  the word “euthanasia”, a Google advertisement for Nitschke and his organisation, Exit International, will appear to the right of your screen.

In fact, sometimes in his book Nitschke sounds remarkably like a Silicon Valley visionary rhapsodising about returning sovereignty to the consumer. “But instead of doctors -- or politicians or legislation -- calling the shots, dying will become democratised,” he writes. “This heightened level of autonomy will open up new choices to the ordinary person."

Nitschke is best known for his expertise in retailing the technology of death. But in Killing Me Softly he also discusses its knock-on effects for the economy. End-of-life care is expensive, Nitschke muses. If voluntary euthanasia lopped a mere six months off the lives of ailing elderly, immense savings would result.

"One can but wonder when a government will have the guts to stop digging the fiscal black hole that is their ever-deepening legacy for future generations. While the enabling of end-of-life choices will not fix the economic woes of the next forty years, it would not hurt, given half a chance.

"So the next time you hear a government minister trying to argue why this or that payment or welfare program for single mothers or war veterans must be cut, counter their argument with their fiscal irresponsibility on end-of-life choices."

Are you listening out there, government bean-counters?

Even from across the Tasman in New Zealand, Nitschke on the internet could be huge. The potential market is far bigger than the white-haired old dears who toddle along to his suicide workshops. There’s voluntary euthanasia for "the troubled teen" and involuntary euthanasia for seriously ill newborns. Another possible clientele is prisoners -- at least those who feel that life behind bars is literally the living end. Voluntary euthanasia, muses Nitschke in Killing Me Softly, may be the "last frontier in prison reform".  

As Western countries move into the post-baby-boomer era with a growing proportion of elderly, there is little doubt that privatised, DIY death will become more attractive to many lonely people, especially women, who fear dependency. Will the open-source euthanasia and assisted suicide sketched out in Killing Me Softly become the next eBay? Will Philip Nitschke appear on the cover of Fortune? Watch this space.


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