Outrage as healthy woman helped to die

01:43, Jan 31 2009

A New Zealand woman who was not terminally ill killed herself with lethal drugs she smuggled home from Mexico after seeking advice from Australian euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke, known as Dr Death.

Details of the Wellington woman's death believed to be the first such death of a physically fit person in New Zealand have surfaced as Nitschke, head of pressure group Exit International, arrived in New Zealand to hold suicide seminars in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch.

The revelations have prompted harsh criticism of Nitschke, who encourages euthanasia supporters to travel to Mexico to buy the drug phenobarbitone, commonly called Nembutal and used by vets to destroy animals.

"We are appalled at this woman's death it's a great tragedy. It's outrageous [Nitschke] is teaching people about this and getting away with it," said Right to Life New Zealand spokesman Ken Orr.

The case was worse because the woman was not suffering a fatal illness, he said. "It's sad to see vulnerable people being enticed by his programme to commit suicide."

A friend of the woman told the Sunday Star-Times the woman was active but suffered severe depression.


"I think if she hadn't had that in the kitchen cupboard, she wouldn't have died that day. People need to be aware this is one of the risks of what [Nitschke] is doing. My view is euthanasia should be only for people who can never recover from their quality of life. People who are depressed can recover."

The dead woman's friends and family knew of her pro-euthanasia stance. A few months before her death, she spoke about it being her right to decide when she died, regardless of whether she was well.

"I support her decision but I don't agree with her timing she could have had a good life for a lot longer," her friend said.

Nitschke was yesterday unrepentant over his role in the death, saying it was "arrogant and paternalistic" to review someone else's decision about when to die. "You're not in her shoes. She obviously made an assessment and decided her life was not worth living any more. You can't simply look at the medical records."

However, he admitted most people found euthanasia more palatable for severely ill patients. "I don't doubt if we had prevented her to have access to do what she did, she would have gone and done it in a far more common way."

Fifteen New Zealanders have travelled to Mexico on Exit International tours to buy the class C drug, which is illegal to import or possess in New Zealand without proper authority, and others have gone independently.

The woman, 68, was a life member of Exit International and one of its earliest members.

"She joined the organisation not because she was unwell but because she was a person who wanted control," Nitschke said.

The woman suffered osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and an underactive thyroid, called hypothyroidism. She was also on medication for depression for about nine months, which her doctor attributed to her husband's death about five years earlier. However, she saw her doctor about four weeks before she died, in March 2006, who noted she seemed well and was enjoying life.

The woman wrote to Nitschke outlining her plans to fly to Mexico via America in April 2005 to buy "my own personal peanut pill". ("Peanut pill" is the term Nitschke coined for a homemade lethal tablet, containing barbiturates, whose manufacture he has taught at seminars.)

"I'm 67 at present and held in reasonable shape by a fair battery of pills and injections (I'm diabetic among other things)," she wrote. "My personal end point is when I can no longer look after myself but hopefully not yet."

She asked Nitschke for advice about buying Nembutal in Mexico. Nitschke said he sent her photographs telling her what shops to buy from and what to buy.

She wrote to him again on her return to New Zealand in May 2005, telling him about buying Nembutal for $US20, after initially being turned away from several pharmacies, and of the trip costing $NZ3000. "I consider it money well spent for the immediate peace of mind I felt."

The woman was found dead in her inner Wellington apartment on March 26, 2006 by a neighbour, who found a handwritten note under her door, dated March 24, stating "Please call the police".

Euthanasia information, including Exit International newsletters containing details of how to use Nembutal, were found in her apartment.

Controversy erupted in Perth in 2002 when French-Australian woman Lisette Nigot, an Exit International member who was not suffering any serious illnesses, took her own life after deciding she didn't want to live longer than 80.


Sunday Star Times