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Authors: Philip Nitschke

Damned if I Do

BOOK: Damned if I Do
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For Fiona

You're the starch in my collar

You're the lace in my shoe

You will always be my necessity

I'd be lost without you.

‘You're the Cream in My Coffee'

B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson

 

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar', every ‘supreme leader', every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth from 6 billion kilometres

Carl Sagan,
Pale Blue Dot:

A Vision of the Human Future in Space
, 1994

 

PART I

ONE

A good idea

euthanasia
n. 1. painless death. 2. the putting to death of a person painlessly.

Macquarie Dictionary

I
'd rented a shed in Palmerston, a satellite suburb of Darwin, and set it up as a makeshift office for my after-hours practice. I would head off for work at about sunset and go through until midnight or later, and then come back to sleep at the office. This was in the Dry, as I recall, but it's hot all the year round in Darwin; a sheet was all the covering you needed.

I woke up in the shed at about nine o'clock one morning in early 1995 and switched on the radio.
Marshall Perron, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and a member of the
conservative Country Liberal Party from 1974 until his retirement from politics later in 1995, was on the ABC news.
He spoke about his government's intention to introduce a Bill to ­legislate for terminally ill people to have the right to get medical help to die at the time of their ­choosing. This was the first—and only—time I'd ever found myself in ­agreement with the man and his ­politics. I thought:
That makes sense
, and went back to sleep.

So there was no ‘road to Damascus moment' that transformed my thinking. I simply thought that if I were terminally ill, I'd want to be able to end it when I chose. Common sense. The fact was I'd never given euthanasia a serious thought. The ‘e' word had never been mentioned at Sydney University Medical School. The nearest we'd come to it were some final-year lectures on palliative care by an associate professor called
Norelle Lickiss, whose religious principles were all too obvious.
1

Later that day, I was surprised to hear a statement by Dr
Chris Wake, President of the Northern Territory branch of the
Australian Medical Association (AMA), denouncing the proposal as ‘irresponsible', and saying no doctor in the Territory would have a bar of it.

People have different views and that's fine with me, but it was the arrogance of the declaration that no doctor would support the legislation that got my attention. Why the vehemence? Why the implication that any doctor who favoured the proposal was beyond the pale?

As I went about my practice, I spoke to a few people about the matter and found that, almost without exception, their opinion was that terminally ill people should have the sort of rights
Perron was advocating. So I had two strands of thought. What about the patients: had anyone asked them for their views? And what right did the AMA have to speak for all ­doctors in the Northern Territory?

Having always been interested in the intersection between politics and medicine, I decided to find out how the land lay with other members of the profession. I was quite sure that Wake wouldn't have had bothered to have a thorough look at doctors' attitudes.

I spoke to doctors in person and on the phone, and ­gathered the signatures of twenty-two Territory doctors who supported the legislation. On 8 May 1995 we ran a half-page advertisement in the
NT
New
s, calling ourselves ‘
Doctors for Change'.

A public claim has been made that the medical practitioners in the Northern Territory are opposed to the introduction of the Private Member's Bill on the rights of the terminally ill.

This is not the case.

The undersigned doctors are registered practitioners within the Northern Territory and are of the opinion that with the provision of safeguards, voluntary euthanasia should be available to all those terminally ill patients who make such a request.

There is a need for legislation to govern this practice and we support in principle the proposed Bill.

A few weeks later, I sat in the public gallery in the Territory Parliament, listening to the debate on
Perron's Bill. There was a lot of public reaction to the newspaper advertisement.
It was now clear that there were doctors in the Territory who supported the legislation, and, as the initiator of the ad I found I'd fallen into the role of spokesman for voluntary euthanasia. When they wanted a statement supporting the Bill, the media began coming to me.
Wake had been busy ­campaigning against the Bill, conducting surveys and making statements. He'd even tried to run the line that the Bill was racist, that it was directed against Aboriginal people, a ­version of the ‘poison waterhole' tactic in frontier days (the ­practice of ­poisoning the enemy's sources of fresh water) that has come to ­represent a method of genocide for Aboriginal people. This didn't convince anyone, including the Indigenous people, but it did some damage, and support on the political left faded.

The falling away of support was largely the fault of Perron. As leader of a redneck, conservative government he often railed against socially progressive issues.
2
Understandably, many on the left—unionists and student groups—­criticised the Bill as a way of taking a swipe at Perron, without considering the bigger issue.

And it was never going to be hard for opponents to get Aboriginal groups to complain that they hadn't been consulted, because it was true;
Perron should have covered that base. It was all too easy to claim that Aboriginal people would stay away from health clinics if they thought euthanasia was part of this government's agenda. I heard these arguments being wheeled out against the Bill as the sitting dragged on. I'd already rescheduled some visits to patients to allow me to hear the debate, but I became increasingly convinced that the Bill would fail, so I left Parliament to start my nightly rounds. In between visits, I was stunned to hear on the radio that the Bill had passed, on the casting vote of the only Aboriginal member,
Wes Lanhupuy.

With the Act not due to be implemented until 1 July the following year, I got on with my life, going bush whenever I could and standing as a
Senate candidate for the Greens in the 1995 federal election. The
Greens were just finding their feet and had approached me as someone to wave a progressive flag. As a person with a track record of opposition to nuclear ships, foreign military bases and uranium mining, I more or less fitted their profile. During that initial campaign I learned how difficult it can be to get a message across at election time. This insight would serve me well when I had a few more forays into politics later on.

It would be a full thirteen months before the
Rights of the Terminally Ill (ROTI) Act
would come into force. In retro­spect, its provisions, in terms of the necessary age, medical and mental condition of the patient and the number and status of doctors needed to sign off on the euthanasia procedure, were very conservative. Nevertheless, it was the first piece of legislation of its kind in the world and this struck me forcibly, as did my responsibility. When I saw the world's media, replete with satellite dishes, set up outside Darwin's Parliament House on 1 July 1996 I was shocked, and realised the importance of this new law.

With the hindsight of my knowledge of how things have worked out in other parts of the world, I can see that the Northern Territory, for all its basic
conservatism, and even though it was a close-run thing, had the right conditions to get the law passed. The personality and political power of
Marshall Perron were critical.
He was a local (and actually born in Darwin), was sufficiently charismatic and knew his electorate intimately. When he let it be known he was intending to retire, his supporters, I think, backed the ROTI Act almost as a reward, indeed a going-away present, for his service.

Second, the Northern Territory has no upper house, which makes passing legislation, especially progressive legis­lation, easier, given that upper houses are notoriously conservative. The Territory is also the least religious part of Australia, which helped to reduce one source of opposition. Finally, there is something about the mindset of the place that worked in favour of the change. Territory cars carry such numberplates as ‘Frontier Australia', ‘Barra Country' and ‘Outback', which are symbolic of history and myth. Many Territorians see themselves as rugged in comparison with the effete south. In some ways, I believe, the Territory welcomed the voluntary euthanasia legislation precisely because no other state or territory had the guts to deal with this political hand grenade.

This attitude reminded me of when, to earn some money as a
PhD student, I was marking final-year matriculation examination papers in physics. (At that time, South Australia administered these exams for the Territory.) One question was unusual: estimate the weight of a brick house. After nearly two weeks of marking the answers from South Australian ­students, a final, rather grubby, batch of papers arrived from the Territory. In the first answer I read, the student had ­written something like, ‘Who gives a shit we don't have bricks up here.' I had to give him or her a zero, but I felt a grudging respect for that kind of attitude, and still do.

TWO

Country boy

I never got to know my many relations that live all over the Adelaide hills.

Philip Nitschke, 2011

T
here are lots of Nitschkes in South Australia, all descendants it seems of the same family who arrived, in 1839,
on a ship called the
Zebra
captained by
Dirk Hahn. They were Lutherans, escaping persecution in Germany, where the Catholic church still held sway. My great-great-grandfather was
Friedrich William Nitschke, who came to South Australia with his wife and three sons. He was a skilled man, a mason. One of the other heads of the family was a wheelwright and others were described as ‘cottagers', meaning small-scale farmers.

Farming was the occupation most of these German immigrants followed for several generations, primarily in the Adelaide Hills and the Barossa Valley, and mainly they moderately prospered. My father,
Harold, broke the mould. The family farm was a going concern—mixed farming, animals and crops—but he was one of the younger brothers in a big brood and there was no place for him on the farm or on the land, so he became a primary-school teacher, working mainly in small country towns.

I was born on 8 August 1947 in just such a town
,
Ardrossan,
which was named after a place in Scotland. Ardrossan is on the east coast of the Yorke Peninsula, about 150 kilometres from Adelaide. I have a brother,
Dennis, and a sister,
Gailene, both older than me.

Looking back, I can see that my
father wasn't the ­farming
type anyway. He loved country life but was keen on motorbikes, home crafts of various kinds and the hunting (for hides) that went along with that. He tanned skins and made things out of leather—a sideline that made him some money. We were never close. In those days, it was common for there to be emotional distance between fathers and sons, and our relationship was like that. I found him difficult, but at times of crisis, and there were a few in my young life, he was always supportive.

My mother,
Gwen, is a different story. She's of English and Irish stock, and her maiden name was Richardson. She was brought up on a farm near
Penong, which was a small place on the edge of the Nullarbor, about as far west as you can get in South Australia. That's marginal country and the farm was pretty much a subsistence operation. She hated country life with all its restricted opportunities—she had no secondary education, presumably because of distance, and lack of money and encouragement. Her older sister
Connie had been sent to Adelaide for further schooling at Presbyterian Ladies College, but hard times meant this was not on offer for Gwen. The family had some bad luck as well; there were three girls and one boy,
Doug. When he was quite young, he was washed off rocks while he was fishing and drowned: the uncle I never knew.

In about 1936 my father was posted to Penong as a teacher, and met my mother when she was sixteen and desperate to get away. I'm not sure about the nature of their attraction to each other. She's said that ‘he was a bit of all right', and old photos show her as a very glamorous young woman. My
father might also have represented a ticket out of country life, and so they married. He did take her to Adelaide, which, from her perspective, was the bright lights, but did not do so permanently. He only felt at home in the bush and was happy to be sent from one country town to another by the Education Department.

Remarkably, given her lack of formal education, my mother also became a teacher, learning on the job. She was classified as a TUA, or ‘temporary untrained assistant', and she and my father were able to take on two-teacher posts. Much as she disliked the bush and its tiny schools, I suspect she did a better job than a lot of the college-trained teachers. It was a different world, and people, and even education departments, made do with what they had.

Time, and the differences in their temperaments and interests, eroded my parents' relationship. In various ways, my mother let my father know of her disappointment in him. In particular, she had no enthusiasm for his family, whom she found rather boorish. There might have been a touch of anti-German feeling in her attitude, with the two world wars fresh in people's memories, although she'd probably deny it. Anyway, as a consequence we did not have much contact with the German side and I know very little about the Nitschke clan. We saw much more of my mother's people, particularly at Christmas and in summer holidays at Victor Harbor and Murray Bridge. There was a tension between my parents that made for an uncomfortable family life at times— there was never neglect, but it was not exactly a happy family picture either. Eventually, after the Whitlam government passed the ‘no fault' legislation, my parents divorced. I was an adult by then.

So we shifted around continually, my older brother and sister and me. Because both our parents were teaching and childcare didn't exist, I was sent to school at age four. This was in 1951, in a little place called
Frances, 300 ­kilometres southeast of Adelaide. I coped, but have faint memories of being teased by the other kids—particularly by girls—for being younger and smaller. The only other memory of Frances I have is of the board that had the school name on it being shot up and ­splintered one night.
Country life.

I don't know how many
primary schools I was plucked out of to be deposited in another, often mid-term, but it was quite a few. I had to make new friends and deal with the new arrangements. I know that I went to five different secondary schools. I didn't lose ground educationally, which is a bit surprising. I suppose I learned to be adaptable, to accept being on the move, and that's stayed with me. Nowadays, I don't like living out of a suitcase any more than other people do, but at times it's a necessity.

So I grew up as a real country boy and a fairly happy one. I have only the faintest memory of
Ardrossan, and I have to admit that it might be affected by an old photograph of me standing in a wheat field: I ran off to play, or perhaps hide, in the field and got lost, to be eventually found and saved by the family cat. There were family stories about it. But the continual change made it an unusual upbringing. I was encouraged, particularly by my mother, to perform well at school and for some reason I developed a growing interest in the physical world—in how and why things work.

I just loved chemistry. At
secondary school in a country town, there weren't many others interested in science; everyone else was interested in playing football and cricket. My bat and ball skills were poor. I was good at gymnastics and okay at swimming but not much else. I spent a lot of time ­reading magazines like
Popular Mechanics
and getting quite interested in the whole idea of what you could do with chemicals. I read in a school textbook about the basis of
explosives and I started to try to make gunpowder—that was quite a challenge in ­country South Australia. I had to get potassium nitrate, the active ingredient in gunpowder. A chemist in Clare, the nearest significant town, told me that sodium nitrate, also known as saltpetre and used in preserving meat, would do. In our town,
Koolunga, there was only one shop, but they had bags of this stuff, for people who wanted to cure their own meat. I bought a lot of it, got some sulphur and crushed-up charcoal, and made gunpowder.

Then I began building little cannons and working out some way of firing the gunpowder using electrical detona­tion. My best friend at the time was
Phillip Lange, who grew up on a farm and spent most of his time playing sport, but was quite intrigued by the idea of manufacturing explosives. We built a small bomb and put it under the water in the local creek, the Broughton River. We'd rigged up the electrical detonation and, when we pressed the plunger we'd made, it blew up impressively underwater. We thought that was fantastic.

Then I became even more ambitious. I started to read and think about more sophisticated explosives, like nitro-glycerine, and thought if I could just make this, that would
have an impact. I had become a trusted member of the ­science
class at
school, as one of the few people interested in chemistry.
Tom Bowden was the science master there and he used to give me free rein of the laboratory, in return for helping out and cleaning up. Although I did pay my dues. I remember one time when the class was doing an experiment to demonstrate the enzymatic dissolving of starch with saliva, Bowden said to me, ‘You're the science monitor, you can collect the class sample.' So, with my beaker, I had to go around to all the students asking them to spit into it, and, of course, two or three of those bastards deliberately spat onto my hand.

‘Oh, sorry.'

But, as I say, I was trusted, and I got access to the ­chemicals and was allowed to take the odd thing home, including the necessary nitric acid. I had a little laboratory set up in the back yard and was sitting there, gingerly pouring my nitric acid into the glycerine. When I look back at it … well, people lose their hands and their heads. It's dangerous stuff, and my experiments with it didn't work, but I was lucky I didn't lose a limb, or worse.

My parents were vaguely aware of my experiments but not too concerned about them. They thought it was very good that I was taking an interest in these kinds of ­academic pursuits. My father became annoyed once, though, when I fired one of the cannons I'd made. There was a large ­explosion and it shot a steel projectile—a bolt about half an inch in diameter—straight through the wall of his galvanised iron shed and out the other side.

Related to this kind of mischief was an incident that got me the only caning I ever received at
school. I was having a conflict with another person: my friend
Phillip Lange. We'd built these home-made pistols that fired starting-pistol caps. Philip was annoying me, so I took his poetry book out of his locker and fired the pistol straight at it. The cover and the first ten pages disintegrated, and quite a bit of smoke and a stench came out of the locker room.

It was reported to the headmaster,
Mr Slee, and Lange and I, and another bloke who just happened to be there, were hauled up before the head to explain. I was the guilty one but the other two wouldn't dob me in. Slee said, ‘You're all going to get caned', and we did. I was the bus prefect, with the job of getting everyone into the vehicle for the 18-­kilometre trip from Koolunga to the school at Brinkworth, and everyone was impressed by the livid welts I had for the next day or two, and my hand swelled up quite badly.

Then we all got mad keen on
model aeroplanes with small internal combustion motors, and Slee, probably trying to steer me towards more peaceful pursuits, gave me a plane of his that had a solid main wing, in contrast to the hollow tissue and balsa ones we were building. It had a big, by our standards, engine: a 5.0-cubic-centimetre glow-plug motor. We spent a lot of time—
Lange, me and a couple of others—playing around with model aeroplanes. We were ­building them and flying them, and using those motors for other things, such as putting them in boats that we raced up and down in the waterholes in the Broughton.

My
father and my
brother
hunted—kangaroos—with .303 rifles. Sensibly, my father forbade me to have a rifle until I was well into my
high-school years. In fact, I got into trouble for stealing his .303 and firing it into a tree when I was eleven or twelve. Eventually I saved enough money from part-time jobs to buy a .22 rifle. With this I hunted rabbits and foxes. I also had a hunting
knife. Questionable now, I know, but I've been around firearms all my life. A knife and a gun were to play unusual roles in my life.

It wasn't all explosions and engines. For instance, I saw a unicyclist at a circus and thought,
I'd like to do that
. I built a unicycle out of spare parts and set about learning to ride it, which I became able to do quite well. It cost me skin and gave me bruises, and it took
persistence, but that's an attribute I have.

Religion played no role in my family's life. I was dragged off to church when we visited the Richardsons at Christmas but it made so little impact on me I don't even remember its denomination, though it was probably C of E. I was more exposed to religion in the later stages of my secondary schooling. My mother wanted me to go to university and I'd need solid school results to make it. And as my school at the time,
Brinkworth Area School, only went as far as third-year high school, my father decided I should go to
Concordia College, a private Lutheran boarding school in Adelaide, which my older brother had also attended.

One snag was that it was an intensely religious ­institution, and it insisted that all students be confirmed in the
Lutheran religion. Somehow, my father knew that an unconfirmed ­student would certainly receive a large dose of prayer and scripture, something he also knew I wouldn't take kindly to, so he arranged for me to get some instruction in Lutheranism in the local Brinkworth church. This instruction was minimal and uninteresting, but it enabled me to present at the school with my shonky certificate attesting I was a confirmed Lutheran. When I saw the drills the unconfirmed students were subjected to, I was grateful for my father's foresight.

Nevertheless, I was herded with the other boys into chapel every morning. There were prayers at night and on Sundays, with two long church services that were torture. The school aimed to train boys for the ministry, and stressed scripture and Greek and Latin, none of which appealed to me. I wanted to do science, which wasn't held in high esteem, and may even have been viewed with suspicion. I found the school's atmosphere and culture stifling, and begged my parents to put me back in the state system.

I did my final school year at
Henley High in Adelaide. That suited me much better but I ran into serious trouble. I was fourteen, not turning fifteen until the August of that year, and 100 kilometres from home—pretty young to be boarding in a strange place with people I didn't know. Not to mince ­matters, the man in whose house I was boarding was feeling me up whenever he got the chance. This was done in the guise of getting close to me and helping me with my schoolwork—but it was help I didn't need.

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