An Australian dubbed "Dr Death" and, more recently “the Elon Musk of assisted suicide”, came to my home town of Brighton in 2009 to advise people about the most effective ways of killing themselves. It was comedy at its best.
When I learned that Philip Nitschke, founder of the euthanasia group Exit International, was about to try his hand at stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015, my immediate reaction was “about time too.”
Six years earlier, during a controversial suicide workshop I attended in Brighton, on the south coast of Britain, the affable humanist, author and former medical practitioner had me in stitches as he demonstrated ways of effectively taking one’s own life with dignity and the minimum fuss and bother.
A line that had the audience howling with laughter was “you want to look your best when you’re dead.” He then showed a short video of elderly “Nurse Betty”, above, demonstrating how to make a suicide bag, used to induce hypoxia with the aid of a gas such as helium.
Betty suggests that “If you want to look nice, you might like to get your hair done” before putting the bag over your head and bidding farewell to the world.
Behind the humor was a deadly serious message that suicide can be a very messy business. Throwing oneself off of tall buildings or in front of trains is not only gruesome, but is likely to inconvenience others—or cause people to lose their lunches if your exit strategy involves a chainsaw.
In 2009 a British man, David Phyall, 50, tied a saw to the leg of a snooker table and plugged it into a timer before positioning his neck against the blade and waiting.
In 2018, a Russian teen—Pavel Matveev, 15—beheaded himself with a chainsaw after losing a computer game.
There are certainly better ways.
Nitschke’s presence in Brighton proved controversial because two venues at which he was slated to present his workshop—the Langham Hotel in neighboring Eastbourne and Brighton Racecourse—canceled his bookings.
Those wanting to attend were furious—myself included— but in the end it was a priest that saved the day by allowing the workshop to proceed at the Brighthelm Centre, operated by the United Reformed Church.
His acceptance sparked anger from MPs and councilors. Brighton and Hove City Council cabinet member for older people, Ken Norman, said:
I would strongly urge the Brighthelm Centre to think again before confirming this booking. My personal opinion is that whilst I would welcome any honest and open debate on the subject of euthanasia, giving advice on how to end a life is clearly against the law and anyone who actively encourages people to kill themselves should be strongly discouraged.
It is irresponsible and potentially dangerous to provide information on how to end a life particularly with no control over who receives the information or to where it goes.
At this point you must be wondering why I would I want to attend a workshop of this nature. Two reasons: first I am an ardent supporter of free speech and assisted dying, and second, I was appalled that the venues got cold feet and pulled the plug (so to speak) on Nitschke.
I was so outraged by the ban that, in a letter published in the Brighton Argus, I wrote:
Just as people have every right to make informed choices about how to live their lives, they should also be allowed to arm themselves with the knowledge of how to end them efficiently. Far too many suicides fail, or are messy, or impinge negatively on others when people throw themselves under trains, or off motorway bridges, or high buildings.
If workshops such as ones led by Dr Nitschke help to make suicide a less haphazard venture, then they are to be applauded and allowed to proceed without interference. And if there are doubts as to their legality, these could quickly be removed by changing any laws that prohibit the dissemination of effective suicide or euthanasia information.
When I entered the Brighthelm Centre, I was amazed by the size of the crowd, mainly made up of people aged 50 and above. I didn’t anticipate an audience of that size, or that the workshop would be such a lighthearted affair.
In 2018 he took humor and suicide methodology to a new level when he and Dutch designer Alexander Bannink unveiled a futuristic death pod called the “Sarco”, short for sarcophagus, a 3D-printed machine that they unveiled at a funeral fair in Holland. The pod enables its occupant to kill themselves at the press of a button. How cool is that?
People immediately began referring to the 75-year-old as “the Elon Musk of assisted suicide.”
Last December, plans to launch the pod in Switzerland were announced.
The “Sarco” comes with a detachable coffin, mounted on a stand that contains a nitrogen canister.
The person who wants to die presses the button and the capsule is filled with nitrogen. He or she will feel a bit dizzy, but will then rapidly lose consciousness and die.
Asked about the controversy surrounding euthanasia and legal hurdles, Nitschke said:
In many countries suicide is not against the law, only assisting a person to commit suicide is. This is a situation where one person chooses to press a button … rather than for instance standing in front of a train. I believe it’s a fundamental human right [to choose when to die].
It’s not just some medical privilege for the very sick. If you’ve got the precious gift of life, you should be able to give that gift away at the time of your choosing.
I was reminded of Nitschke’s workshop after I read today that research from Dignity in Dying in the UK estimated that up to 650 terminally ill people a year are taking their own lives in lieu of a safe, legal option to die on their own terms, with up to ten times as many attempts.
This is in addition to the pre-pandemic average of 50 Brits a year who traveled to Switzerland for an assisted death (costing at least $13,000) and 6,400 a year who suffer in pain as they die in the UK despite access to the best possible palliative care.