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Illinois Federation

For Right to Life

Daily News

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Grieving Family Wants Suicide Book Banned


Family of Australian suicide victim is calling for a ban on this book.


Euthanasia has returned to the political agenda in Australia, with several new attempts to liberalize laws at a time when the country’s most prominent right-to-die campaigner is courting fresh controversy.


Lawmakers in Victoria State are considering a bill that would allow doctors to help terminally ill patients commit suicide, based on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.


Supporters are confident that if the legislation passes, it will be safe from federal intervention, since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s stated policy is to avoid interfering with legislation passed by the country’s six states and two territories.


That was not the case 11 years ago, when the conservative government of then-Prime Minister John Howard overturned the world first euthanasia law. Enacted in Australia’s Northern Territory in 1996, the law stood for nine months, during which the country’s most high-profile euthanasia advocate, Dr. Philip Nitschke, helped four people to die.


In the new political climate since the defeat of the Howard government last year, a new push is underway in the federal Senate which, if successful, could lead to the revival of that Northern Territory law and open the way for similar ones elsewhere in the country.


But not all is going the euthanasia campaigners’ way. Nitschke, who researches suicide methods and holds “workshops” to discuss effective ways to die, is in the firing line.


Relatives of an Australian woman who died in Mexico after a botched suicide attempt earlier this year, are urging the government to ban a 2005 book he co-wrote on euthanasia, Killing Me Softly.


Erin Berg, a 49-year-old mother of four young children, flew to Mexico where she bought Nembutal, a barbiturate used by vets to put down sick animals. She drank it, went into a coma and died two weeks later.


Berg, who was undergoing psychiatric treatment for post-natal depression, had borrowed Nitschke’s book from a public library before traveling to Tijuana on the Mexico-U.S. border.


In his writings, on his Web site and at his workshops, Nitschke has long promoted Nembutal as an effective DIY euthanasia drug. Several hundred mostly Australian members of his organization, Exit International, have gone to Mexico and smuggled the drug back to their home countries for future use.


But in Berg’s case, Nitschke denied responsibility.


Killing Me Softly is not a “how-to” guide to suicide, he said in a recent statement. “It details the philosophical position of Exit that all rational adults should have access to the means of a peaceful death.”


(Another book by Nitschke, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, is already banned in Australia, although Exit’s Web site includes information on where it can be bought online.)


Nitschke also reported that Berg had been in touch with Exit four months before traveling to Mexico.


“She was assessed as someone we were unable to help because of her age and history of psychiatric illness,” he said. “Her death is a tragedy but not one that Exit takes responsibility for.”


‘Loaded gun’


Berg’s family strongly disagrees.


Her older sister, Sally Doyle, said Monday that the family sent a detailed document to the federal attorney-general’s office giving pages numbers and quotes from the book, “highlighting the connections between this information and actions taken by Erin.”


“Erin’s behavior in killing herself exactly mirrored information provided in Killing Me Softly,” she said.


Doyle rejected Nitschke’s assertion that the book does not provide tips or hints useful for someone wanting to commit suicide.


It included information on the “best” drug for the purpose (Nembutal), the best place to find it legally (vet stores in Mexico), how best to consume it (swallowed, with alcohol), she said.


Sally Doyle and another sister traveled to Mexico after they were notified that Berg was in a coma in a Tijuana hospital, having been found by staff in her hotel room after taking the drug. They were there when she died, ten days later.


The family does not blame Nitschke alone. They acknowledge that “severe depression placed Erin on the path to suicide” and are also trying to draw attention to a mental health system which they believe let her down badly.


But, “at the end of the path was a loaded gun, provided courtesy of Philip Nitschke,” Doyle said. “It wasn't intended specifically for Erin, but it was there for her to use regardless.”


She also took issue with Nitschke’s description of Nembutal as a reliable and pain-free way to kill oneself.


“As someone who watched Erin die a long death in a country a long way from home, we can say with some clarity that such guarantees should be treated with suspicion,” Doyle said.


“Erin learned in the most horrendous way possible that [accepting] black and white guarantees from a person who has built a business around the invincibility of a certain suicide method, is probably not a wise thing to do.”


Doyle said the family was still awaiting a response to the request for the book to be banned. They also hoped that customs officials in Australia and countries like Mexico would become more alert in detecting the smuggling of drugs like Nembutal.


The family’s request to the attorney-general was forwarded to Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, whose department deals with classification of books, films and other media.


A spokeswoman for Debus, Samantha Wills, said Tuesday the matter was “still under consideration and we hope to have a response soon.” She said the office had not received any other submissions about Killing Me Softly.


‘Roaming the country, telling people how to kill themselves’


Nitschke, whose research into suicide options has received funding from right-to-die groups in the U.S., has long been regarded as a pioneer by the euthanasia movement.


Over the years he has promoted the use of various “self-deliverance” devices, including the Exit Bag (a plastic bag with drawstring, modified for comfort and easy use), the COGenie (a simple machine incorporating a face mask and supply of carbon monoxide gas), and the Peaceful Pill (a suicide concoction, made at home to a prescribed recipe).


But Nembutal, the barbiturate linked to Marilyn Monroe’s death, is the method he champions – and Mexico, he says, is the ideal source.


An excerpt from a newsletter published last March, and available on the Exit Web site, reads, “Exit can now say with 100 percent confidence that Nembutal is widely, cheaply and legally available … one only needs to know the location of a veterinary supplier and the labeling in use at that location.”


“On the basis of Exit research, the best places to visit are the 20-odd border crossings, from Tijuana in California through to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico,” it says. “Remember, though, while it is legal to purchase Nembutal in Mexico, it is a crime to import Nembutal into most other countries.”


The death of Erin Berg is not the first setback for Nitschke in recent months.


Last June, an Exit member who bought Nembutal in Mexico for a friend with advanced Alzheimer’s was convicted of being an accessory to manslaughter after he used the drug to kill himself


The 71-year-old man’s partner, who opened the bottle for him and watched him drink it, was found guilty of manslaughter.


The prosecutor argued that the man’s dementia was so advanced he was unable to make an informed decision to take his life.


Nitschke, who testified during the case, said afterwards he would have to advise Exit members carefully on the implications of the verdict.


“We will now be advising our members not to undertake medical testing for Alzheimer’s disease if they think they may wish to end their lives in the future,” he said. “Test results could be used – as they were in this case – to make out a murder case against those who love you enough to want to help you to have the choice of a peaceful death.”


Margaret Tighe, president of Right to Life Australia, said Tuesday she hoped the request by Erin Berg’s family to have the book banned would succeed.


“I think it’s high time that the authorities took action against Dr. Nitschke,” she said. “I would like to see the book withdrawn from sale, and the so-called euthanasia advice clinics should not be allowed to take place either.


“Here’s this man, roaming the country, telling people how they can kill themselves, how they can gain access to these drugs.”


According to the Exit Web site, the workshops, which are held alongside public meetings, include discussion on issues including “end-of-life decision-making, drug and overseas options including Switzerland & Nembutal from Mexico and the on-going Peaceful Pill project.”


Most of the workshops are held in Australia and New Zealand, but he will be holding some in San Diego, Calif., next February.


The experience has made Erin Berg’s family reassess some of their views.


“My family has always been left wing, pro-choice people, and before this we assumed Nitschke was an okay-sounding guy who was advocating for vulnerable people in our community,” Doyle said.


“This has changed with Erin’s death, and [after] having actually read Killing Me Softly, which is a horrifying book containing dangerous information,” she said.


“We want people to ask ‘In whose interests is this man acting?’”


* A euthanasia measure mirroring Oregon’s law will be on the November ballot in Washington State, after advocates secured the required number of signatures in support. 


Contact: Patrick Goodenough


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The IFRL is the largest grassroots pro-life organization in Illinois. A non-profit organization, that serves as the state coordinating body for local pro-life chapters representing thousands of Illinois citizens working to restore respect for all human life in our society. The IFRL is composed of people of different political persuasions, various faiths and diverse economic, social and ethnic backgrounds. Since 1973 the Illinois Federation for Right to Life has been working to end abortion and restore legal protection to those members of the human family who are threatened by abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Diverse though we are, we hold one common belief - that every human being has an inalienable right to life that is precious and must be protected. IFRL is dedicated to restoring the right to life to the unborn, and protection for the disabled and the elderly.   Click here to learn more about the IFRL.