With the topic of legalising euthanasia up for debate in parliament this week, I travelled to Holland to speak to the man who started the conversation.
You have been putting up with portraits of often long-dead Australian mavericks from me for weeks now, as part of my attempt to entertain and inspire. This time, though, our maverick is alive and well and willing to talk. And there is plenty of reason for a conversation, because the cause he spent most of his life advocating, euthanasia, will be debated in both the NSW and Victorian parliaments this week. In fact, it is on the agenda in Sydney today. But Philip Nitschke won’t be there. Two years ago he migrated to the more liberal climes of the Netherlands and that is where we are talking now, in a high-ceilinged restaurant dating back to the 18th century, with heavy wood paneling, landscapes painted on walls and waiters in long white aprons. But there are reminders of home too, like the cockatoo on the bar, a gift from an Australian sailor 22 years ago and still on his perch overlooking the customers, screeching his comments. Nitschke turned 70 this year and although he takes his cause very seriously, he knows how to have a good laugh at his own expense. “When I helped my first patient kill himself, Wikipedia started referring to me as ‘doctor death’. There are only nine of us. Six are dead. People like Mengele, the Nazi doctor in Auschwitz, and Jack Kevorkian. Then there is a chap in Siberia who is serving a life sentence, somebody in South Africa awaiting trial for murder, and me. Last man standing.”
Nitschke seems at home in Holland. A few days ago he was on the front page of one of the leading Dutch papers, talking about a new euthanasia drug. But he is not a controversial, polarising figure here; just another expert giving his measured opinion about the way forward in the debate. The euthanasia debate in the Netherlands has been raging since the early 1970s and resulted in a law in 2002 that allows for close to what the Australian states are discussing now. The discussion in Holland at the moment is about giving people the right to decide for themselves whether they want to die or not, without the interference of a doctor, and even without the necessity of a terminal illness. The majority of the country, 74%, is in favour of supplying people who feel their life is “completed” with a pill that they can use if and when they decide it is time to end it. It is a conversation that is a long way from the one in front of the Australian politicians this week, and Nitschke deplores the fact that the country is so far behind most of the rest of the Western world. Especially because Australia was the first to have a euthanasia law in the world, in the Northern Territory in 1996. Nitschke himself was instrumental in getting it passed and making it work until the Federal government shut it down.