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10 November 2014

Philip Nitschke: politicians out of step with public's attitude to euthanasia

Suspended right-to-die advocate says medical board’s view was based on the ‘doctors know best’ premise

Politicians and the medical profession are out of touch with the views of mainstream Australia about right-to-die laws, the euthanasia advocate Philip Nitschke said in Darwin on Sunday, ahead of an appeal against the suspension of his medical registration.

Nitschke, who is the director of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International, had his medical registration suspended in July.

Using emergency powers, the South Australian division of the medical board of Australia said it took the interim action to “keep the public safe while other investigations or processes continue”.

After successfully lobbying to have his appeal heard in the Northern Territory, which for a short time in the 1990s had a policy of legal euthanasia, Nitschke will appear before the medical tribunal in Darwin today.

“The medical profession has the greatest difficulty in dealing with this issue. They have really dragged long behind public sentiment on this question, so far from actually being a leader in the debate what they’ve done is tended to drag the debate down,” Nitschke told media on Sunday.

Nitschke said rational adults have the right to make their own decisions about when they have suffered enough, and that the medical board was basing its view on a simple premise that “doctors know best”.

“The board believes that it’s every doctor’s duty to prevent every rational adult who that doctor comes into contact with, irrespective of whether that person is the doctor’s patient, from having access to information which might be used by that person to engage in a lawful activity,” Nitschke said.

“The board also believes that any doctor who does not share the board’s belief is so dangerous that his or her right to practise medicine must be suspended immediately.”

Lawyers will argue this week that doctors should not “pathologise” the behaviour of an individual’s “rational decision to suicide” nor be compelled to intervene in what they say is that individual’s right.

The action taken by the medical board was triggered by allegations that Nitschke had counselled a depressed but otherwise healthy man, Nigel Brayley, to take his own life, but this week’s hearing does not relate to the ongoing investigations.

Nitschke also had his phones and computers seized by police in August as part of an investigation into the death of a terminally ill Adelaide man, Max Bromson, who obtained an imported drug and had it tested at an Exit International laboratory before using it to take his own life.

Nitschke’s lawyers have said he was never Brayley’s doctor, and the medical board was basing its decision on the exchanging of emails after a brief meeting at an Exit International workshop in Perth.

However, “this case was principally about Mr Nitschke’s advocacy”, lawyer Peter Nugent said at a press conference on Sunday.

“The vast majority of complaints against [Nitschke] by the medical board involved things like the Exit International website, and the fact that it provides information to people so they can make informed decisions about what action they can take if they ever need to take it. That was the principle for this.”

Nugent, who is suffering from a terminal illness, said the case was about “one of the most important debates that Australia needs to have as a country”.

“The views [Nitschke] holds are not abhorrent, they’re not out there. They’re not even out of step with mainstream Australia’s views,” said Nugent.

“It’s quite audacious for the medical board … to say you are such a dangerous individual that you ought to be prevented from practising medicine.”

Nugent said that as a consequence of the board’s action, membership of Exit International has increased “exponentially” and sales of Nitschke’s book had “gone through the roof”.

Nugent, who usually works in commercial law, said he chose to support Nitschke because the legality of euthanasia is “a dangerous idea” which seeks to undermine “the power and mystique of the medical profession and in turn empower the individual to make his or her own choices”.

Nitschke said he thought the case would draw attention to the issue, and perhaps prompt politicians to re-engage with it.

Australia is “left with a void in which suicide is not a crime but anyone who might assist that person can be guilty of assisting a suicide which can attract savage penalties. Now that anomaly … where assisting someone to do something which is lawful is a crime, needs to be addressed, and the question of rational suicide draws attention clearly to that.”

He thought his grounds for appeal were strong, but should it be unsuccessful he may take it to a higher court.

A spokeswoman for the Medical Board of Australia and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency told Guardian Australia that Monday’s hearing is about the board’s decision “to take immediate action to suspend Dr Nitschke’s registration, as an interim step to manage risk to the public, pending other inquiries”.

“Given this matter is now before the tribunal, the Medical Board of Australia will not comment further at this time.”