The methods of a controversial Australian doctor who advocates assisted suicide – and is planning to offer instructions on how to do it in Toronto and Vancouver next month – have already been used in Canada.
At least two Canadians have already died and five more have made preparations following the instructions of Philip Nitschke, according to the physician and an independent researcher familiar with the cases.
The two deaths took place since the doctor offered his “Safe Exit” workshop in Vancouver last fall, according to Russel Ogden, a sociologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who has spent years documenting assisted suicide.
In all seven cases, patients suffering from serious, incurable illnesses obtained one of the death kits recommended by Dr. Nitschke, according to Mr. Ogden.
In one option, patients bought pentobarbital from Mexico, where it is easily found. Taken in high quantities, the drug stops the heart and lungs from functioning. Others have purchased helium gas used to inflate balloons which can be fed into a plastic bag worn over the head, triggering asphyxiation.
Mr. Ogden refused to give more details on the patients, citing ethical concerns and confidentiality agreements.
Both deaths are described as painless and quick in Dr. Nitschke’s instruction book, The Painless Pill.
“I’m pleased that I’ve been able to give information so people know what they’re doing and know they won’t fail,” said Dr. Nitschke from his home in Darwin, Australia. “People often end up in a worse situation than the one they were in because they mess things up. People tend not to panic or act precipitously once they know what they need and how to go about it.”
Mr. Ogden, whose research directly observing suicides has been controversial inside and out of academic circles, gets almost weekly phone calls from those preparing for suicide.
“It’s my observation that total prohibition brings with it a total lack of control, and it creates a niche for entrepreneurs in the area. The state is contributing to that,” Mr. Ogden said.
Dr. Nitschke’s methods have been in circulation for years, Mr. Ogden notes, but the physician’s work has outraged anti-euthanasia advocates, who lobbied successfully to ban his commercial message advocating choice from Canadian airwaves.
Libraries in Vancouver and Toronto that refused to allow the presentation, along with the Television Bureau of Canada, a broadcaster umbrella group, have obtained legal opinions telling them Dr. Nitschke is breaking the law.
“To come and talk to people about the best way to go, it’s in the Criminal Code, you’re not supposed to help people commit suicide,” said Linda Couture, head of the Quebec group, Living with Dignity. “On one hand, we’re trying to prevent suicide, on the other hand we allow a person to say, here’s how you do it.”
However, legal opinion seems split.
David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Union says police in Vancouver were well aware of the contents of Dr. Nitschke’s presentation last year and did not arrest him.
“The law is pretty clear that you need to act to assist somebody in the suicide. You need to give them the rope, or give them the drugs, or do something that actively assists them,” Mr. Eby said. “Giving them the information of the effect of various medications does not rise to the level of case law.”