A column about euthanasia

You can’t keep Dr Phillip Nitschke down, can you? Somewhat ironically for a euthanasia advocate, he never seems to give up. Every few months he bounces back in the headlines with a new angle on assisted suicide. He was heavily involved in the NT’s brief period of legal euthanasia, he’s constructed made a “suicide machine” And recently, a court banned his book on “peaceful pills” – a macabre euphemism if ever I’ve heard one – which contained easy household recipes for topping yourself in the comfort of your own kitchen. Mmm, now that’s peaceful.

It was banned not because of the euthanasia aspect, but because of fears that those helpful everyday recipes would have made it easier to commit murder. Which I think does a great disservice to the creativity of our nation’s murdering community. How hard is it to dream up the idea of mixing bleach and Drano?

(Note that the previously supplied recipe has not been tested and may not result in death. If it does, though, neither this newspaper or I will be liable for any “peace” that may result.)

But Nitschke’s latest effort has reached a new level of controversy, and poses an interesting moral conundrum. He’s been arguing that Martin Bryant, who killed 35 people at Port Arthur, should be given a chance to kill himself in prison. Nitschke says the state is not interested in rehabilitating him, and that it’s cruel to essentially leave him to rot in jail. I don’t imagine that even the most passionate prison reform advocate would try and argue that Bryant should be prepared for a release into the community, so perhaps Nitschke has a point? Perhaps it would be better for everyone if Bryant were given – not the death penalty, but the death option?

He might well take it. Bryant has tried to kill himself five times, though it’s unclear how serious the efforts were. On one occasion, he swallowed a tube of toothpaste – which may not be a suicide attempt at all, but merely a case of reading the instructions very, very badly. Each time, he has been foiled.

I’ve been thinking about Martin Bryant since the Virginia Tech killing earlier in the year. I was astonished that no massacres on the Port Arthur scale had ever happened in the USA, and ended up re-reading an account of that horrific day. Even all these years later, the sheer brutality of Bryant is utterly shocking. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it might have been better for everyone if Bryant’s last victim had been himself, as was the case in Virginia. And I imagine it could be making it that much harder for the victims’ families to know that he is still alive.

There were calls for his execution at the time of his trial. But like most Australians, I have always believed that the death penalty is inhumane, and should simply not be on the table, even in the most extreme of cases. I didn’t support it for Saddam Hussein, and I don’t support it for Martin Bryant either. And Nitschke’s argument that society should give him the option to kill himself is somehow humane seems perverse. I can understand the argument that terminally ill people in enormous pain should be allowed to end it, but Bryant’s pain is existential. It’s the inevitable result of his own actions, and if he spends the next fifty years stuck in jail reflecting on it, and perhaps even one day regretting it, then so much the better.

Suicide has been an all-too-common theme in Australian prisons. And in the light of our problem with black deaths in custody, the need to stand firm against all varieties of prison death is all the greater. Prison demonstrably causes mental illness, and anyone choosing suicide in prison cannot be assumed to be truly free in their choice.

The decision to keep Bryant alive shows that we as a nation value life in all circumstances. It makes a powerful and worthwhile statement about our values, and our humanity. Because the humane approach is one that always values life. Yes, even one as sordid and destructive as Martin Bryant’s.

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