Friday, 18 October 2013


Damned If I Do
Melbourne University Press, 2013, 237 pages

Review by Phil Shannon 

Dr. Philip Nitschke has chalked up a couple of unwanted achievements – as the author of the first book to be banned (in 2007) in Australia in 35 years, and as only the third person in the 190 year history of the Oxford University’s Oxford Union debate to have had his invitation withdrawn, sharing this tainted honour with Holocaust denier (David Irving) and the founder of the far right British National Party.

As the biography by Nitschke and Australian crime novelist, Peter Corris, shows, however, the offensive iniquities of the latter are poles apart from Nitschke’s transgression which has been to be the public face of the humanitarian cause of voluntary euthanasia (VE), the right of the incurably and intolerably ill to end their physical agony and mental anguish through a merciful assisted death - a thumpingly popular, but still illegal, policy supported by 85% of the Australian population.

Nitschke never intended to make VE his life’s work, though it flowed seamlessly from his progressive political antecedents -  an Adelaide and Flinders University sixties’ activist at on the Vietnam War, Aboriginal rights, apartheid, nuclear weapons, uranium mining and US military bases.  By the mid-1990s, Nitschke’s championing of the Northern Territory’s bill to legalise VE, and his use of the new law to assist four patients to die, had thrust him into a campaigning role he took to with expertise and passion.

His opponents did not lack passion, either, but theirs was a rigid zealotry shorn of compassion as well as logic and respect.  A palliative care Professor sledge-hammered fascist innuendo from a play on words (‘Nazi-Nitschke-Euthanasia’) whilst the Australian Medical Association’s Northern Territory Branch President, ignoring Nitschke’s history of land rights activism, accused him of being a racist, seeking to use the Territory’s VE law to exterminate Aboriginal people.

Fanaticism also marks the conservative Christian lobby whose influence on governments and mass media is way out of proportion to their tiny base.  Censorship of Nitschke has been rife in the Murdoch press (with savage opinion pieces and ad hominem attacks), the Fairfax press (which denies Nitschke fairness and right of reply) and commercial television (which banned a VE advertisement).

BBC reporters are obsessed with the smear-laden question - ‘Aren’t you making a lot of money out of death’ – which resists all answers by Nitschke that his VE organisation (Exit International) grosses $500,000 a year from which Nitschke draws a modest $50,000, a fraction of the income he could earn as a doctor.

Cyberspace is filled with censorship (YouTube content removed, Google sponsored ads disallowed, PayPal accounts frozen), cyber-vandalism (Wikipedia’s content on Nitschke hacked) and the rancid extremities of the blogosphere inhabited by extremist Christian moralists.

The former federal Labor Government has attempted to add an e-book by Nitschke to porn sites slated for their proposed mandatory internet filter, whilst the Queensland state Labor government authorised police raids.  Last-minute cancellation of speaking and workshop venues has curtailed Nitschke’s freedom of speech and Nitschke is periodically threatened with medical de-registration.

More surprising is the level of hostility to Nitschke shown by some erstwhile comrades in the right-to-die movement who want to restrict VE to only the terminally ill, in contrast to Nitschke who believes that VE is a fundamental human right that should be available to all who understand death (i.e. excluding children, the mentally impaired and those with psychological conditions able to be helped through medical means) and also including those with chronic, but not terminal, suffering and those who have compelling non-medical reasons to seek death.

Those with a limited, doctor-mediated VE approach focus exclusively on law reform whilst Nitschke’s is a DIY strategy which places control of VE decision-making, and its technical means, in the hands of patients, a practical approach which he combines with political activity for reform (Nitschke has been a Greens and an independent candidate in federal elections, and has most recently campaigned for the Australian Sex Party).

Less strong on making the philosophical case for VE (covered more comprehensively in Nitschke’s earlier book, Killing me Softly), Corris’ interview-biography fills out Nitschke the person, including his life outside VE, from the South Australian country boy born in 1947, through all the emotional storms of failed relationships, to what the future may hold if he is de-registered (a career in stand-up comedy, not something that a genuine ‘Dr Death’ would contemplate).

Peter Corris has made a useful addition to his stable of ‘collaborative autobiographies’, profiling those, like Fred Hollows and environmentalists, who have led “an active life, devoted to a cause I approve of, and pursued with a courage and commitment I admire”.  At last, Nitschke has found more appropriate company than those of fascist bent that his enemies assign him to in their holy war in the cause of human suffering perpetuated by the cruel moral tyranny of church and state.

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