Pro-Euthanasia Group In Australia To Market Death Bags
July 7, 2008
Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australian euthanasia activists plan to begin manufacturing customized suicide kits in an effort to get around government moves to ban the importation of similar items from abroad.
In an announcement that has shaken pro-life campaigners, euthanasia advocate Dr. Philip Nitschke - known for his computerized "death machine" and a proponent of a floating euthanasia clinic - said he had a waiting list of around 50 people who want the bags.
Nitschke, who heads a group called Exit Australia, said some 500 would be made in Queensland state, using a design intended to be an improvement on the "exit bag" made available in recent years by Canada's Right to Die Network.
The bags, made of heavy-duty plastic and featuring a collar to seal around the user's neck and deprive him of oxygen, would bear warnings saying they were dangerous and should not be placed over the head, he said.
The warnings are thought to be an attempt to sidestep potential legal problems.
Similarly, instructions on how the bags should be used to induce death will not be made available with the bags.
However, instructions for their proper use would likely appear on an Internet website based on a foreign server, according to Nitschke.
"There's a special way you hold the bag and you then go to sleep, and it's only when you go to sleep that the bag comes into play," he was quoted as saying. "A death from low oxygen is a peaceful death."
Nitschke maintained the kits would be available free of charge, only to members of Exit Australia, a group claiming a membership of more than 2,000.
The Canadian organization, which sold its version for around $30 each, also asserted that only its members could order them. But leading anti-euthanasia activist Wesley Smith said last year he had ordered a kit and had it delivered by mail "in a plain white envelope and with no questions asked."
Also last year, Nitschke said Australians wanting to kill themselves were ordering the bags over the Internet from Canada, but the federal government stepped in and said it would review the importation.
An advertisement for the Canadian "self-deliverance" tools said the bag should be used with sedatives.
"It has an adjustable collar (with elastic sewn into the back and a six-inch Velcro strip in front) for a snug but comfortable fit.
"It comes with a flannelette lining inside the collar so that the plastic won't irritate sensitive skin. And it comes with an optional separate terry-cloth neckband to create a 'turtleneck' for added comfort and snugness of fit."
The Australian version is expected to be unveiled at a press conference next month.
'Better than jumping off a bridge'
Pro-lifers called Wednesday for the Queensland state government to investigate what it called "this latest dangerous outrage by Nitschke and voluntary euthanasia advocates."
Right to Life Australia president Margaret Tighe said the news was alarming.
"There are many vulnerable people in the community who sadly feel that life is no longer worth living. With Nitschke's suicide bags so freely available, how many will die as a result?"
The use of "exit bags" was described in detail in the controversial 1991 euthanasia how-to book, Final Exit, by Hemlock Society co-founder Derek Humphry.
At a "World Conference on Assisted Dying" in Boston in 2000, Humphry presented the bag and other suicide aids, and was quoted as saying it was better that people use such methods than "guns or knives or jump[ing] off a bridge."
In a statement still available on the Internet, Canada's Right to Die Network played down the controversial nature of its bag, saying it was "of limited usefulness and modest interest to members of the right to die society of Canada. By no stretch of the imagination can it be called 'new' or 'newsworthy.' "
It accused journalists, egged on by pro-lifers, of getting their facts wrong about the bags, and said that in the absence of accompanying drugs, the bags were useless.
"Given appropriate medication, death is likely to occur without a bag as barbiturate overdoses have done for decades. However the bag may play a limited role in reducing the risk of protracted coma. It is therefore not an 'aid to suicide' as 'pro-lifers' allege ..."
The statement prompted Canada's Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Schadenberg to write: "It is obvious that the only defense that the Right to Die Society can make is to deny that the Exit Bag is what it is."
Australia's 'Doctor Death'
Nitschke has long been regarded as a pioneer by the voluntary euthanasia movement.
Under the world's first euthanasia law, in Australia's Northern Territory in 1996, he helped four of his patients die, using computer software he had designed.
Nitschke's "death machine" comprised a computer hooked up to a hypodermic needle inserted into the patient's arm. The patient had to answer a series of on-screen questions. The final one told the patient that if he pressed the space bar he would die.
If he did so, the equipment delivered a fatal dose of the lethal barbiturate Nembutal, killing the patient in minutes.
The territory's law was subsequently overturned by the federal government, and Nitschke has been campaigning since to bring it back across Australia.
In 2000, Nitschke was advocating use of a low-oxygen tent into which inert gases could be pumped, allowing two people to commit suicide simultaneously.
When Dutch activists launched a floating abortion clinic last summer, intending to operate in territorial waters off countries where abortion is illegal, Nitschke expressed keen interest on adopting a similar approach, offering one-way euthanasia journeys followed by burials at sea.
Last May, Nitschke was an adviser to a 69-year-old Australian woman, Nancy Crick, who killed herself with barbiturates surrounded by supporters, in defiance of the law. After her death an autopsy found no sign of the bowel cancer Crick had earlier been treated for, and which she and her supporters had said was terminal.
Nitschke said this week the continuing police investigation was hounding him and those who witnessed her suicide.
"My phone records have been gone through, we've had search warrants, we've lost computers, we've lost files. It's something sort of reminiscent of acts you might see directed against urban terrorists, but not against people who sat peacefully with a woman who acted legally to end her life," he told a medical students' conference.
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.