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How dangerous is the peaceful pill handbook?

by Piero Moraro PhD
01 December 2011
HEALTH AND MEDICINE;
LAW, JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Is it morally permissible to help someone commit suicide if they cannot kill themselves without our assistance? Philip Nitschke, a prominent figure in the pro-euthanasia campaign in Australia for the past 20 years, strongly believes it is, and that we need to take active steps so that the state does not interfere with the right to die.

Nitschke has been trying for years to administer the drug Nembutal to terminally ill patients. It’s a medicine that induces sleep but which, if taken without extreme care, can be fatal. Speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House on 2 October 2011, Nitschke described the obstacles he faced in trying to legalise the use of Nembutal, one being the 2005 Suicide Related Material Offences Act and another, the censorship of his book The Peaceful Pill. “Behind every act of censorship, there is a dangerous idea” was how he opened his address to the Festival.

First published in 2007, this controversial book written by Nitschke and Fiona Stewart offers detailed instructions about how to make Nembutal at home to perform euthanasia. The Peaceful Pill has been banned throughout Australia and it is now a crime to sell it anywhere in the country. This led Nitschke to abandon his original plan to distribute the book in the foyer of Sydney Opera House during the Festival.

However, it is available to everyone online and offers people information about a pain free way to commit suicide. Nitschke denounces the censorship of his book as an unjustified abuse of state power.

There are two different issues at stake here which ought to be kept distinct from each other: one is whether the book should be banned; another is whether the book should have been written in the first place?

There are two different issues at stake here which ought to be kept distinct from each other: one is whether the book should be banned; another is whether the book should have been written in the first place? While there is a strong case to answer “no” to the first question, latter is more problematic.

Censorship is wrong and a liberal society should have no item on the list of ‘forbidden books’. Yet Nitschke treats in the same way two tragically different categories of individuals, the terminally ill and the depressed. The former has no hope that things will change. In fact, the condition of those who are terminally ill is likely to worsen to the point where they lose autonomy and die an often miserable death. If they wish to be assisted to die, there is a moral case that we should help them.

But Nitschke goes much further than this as he claims that “an informed consent should be the only requirement” for permissible use of Nembutal. If a physically able person has decided, in an informed way, to commit suicide, let them use the medicine. Nitschke’s campaign not only targets terminally ill patients, but anyone who wishes to die.

Nitschke claims he is protecting the dignity of depressed people who wanted to commit suicide by offering them an alternative to hanging: “If they can go and buy a rope from the shop to kill themselves, why can’t they go to the bookshop and buy my book?” he argues.

But what kind of protection does Nitschke really offer? How is his work meant to help the suicidal person? We might be led to think that Nitschke misses the whole point of depression: a suicidal person needs our help to not suicide. Arguing that we are defending the dignity of depressed people by giving them sleeping pills instead of ropes or guns relies on a very misleading idea of ‘dignity’. It is an idea that is provocative, but, nonetheless, wrong. To this extent, Nitschke’s book is really dangerous.
 
Writer and lecturer Piero Moraro has a PhD in philosophy. Piero teaches in New South Wales and has published articles on civil disobedience and democracy.