Dr Philip Nitschke believes people should have the right to voluntarily end their life to avoid suffering.
The Exit International director discussed this in detail at a public meeting and workshop, which was attended by more than 100 people, at Colo Vale Community Centre on Saturday.
The meeting covered the history of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide around the world, the Australian experience of the Northern Territory in 1996, the legal status quo, advanced directives and living wills.
Dr Nitschke was the first doctor in the world to perform an assisted suicide under the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT).
The effect of the law was nullified in 1997 by the federal Parliament of Australia, which passed the Euthanasia Laws Act 1997.
The way I see it is we are moving towards a world where it will be acknowledged that people should have every option to take this step for whatever reason.
Dr Nitschke founded Exit International in response to the overturning of the act.
“Initially I was angry over what they did to the Northern Territory. That [law] was so ahead of its time, and to watch the way it was cut out from under us really upset me,” he said.
“I was angry enough to want to keep going, to see laws come back in. But having got more into it and meeting more people I started to see it as a much bigger issue than this.
“It really is the cutting-edge issue of this century. The way I see it is we are moving towards a world where it will be acknowledged that people should have every option to take this step for whatever reason.”
Dr Nitschke said his meetings generally attracted people in their 60s and 70s.
“It’s an issue that really does attract one’s mind and focus one’s attention as you age.
“Mostly people in their 60s and 70s have to confront their own mortality.
By that time, most people have seen people go through some difficult deaths and they often say to themselves ‘I don’t want to be in that position’.”
The public meeting also discussed Victoria’s decision to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill.
The law gives patients the right to request a lethal drug to end their lives from mid-2019.
“Victoria did it the right way. It was a conservative law, but it was the only law that could get through the very difficult parliamentary process,” Dr Nitschke said.
“I want to see that duplicated in NSW and in other states but then I don’t want it to stop there. I really want to see the pressure on then to liberalise it, to make it more accessible to people.”
However Dr Nitschke said his work had attracted criticism from religious groups and the medical profession.
“It’s predominantly the church. They believe, and I don’t mind them having this belief, that life is a gift from God and no one has a right to interfere with that,” he said.
“The medical profession has never been very supportive. When I wrote my handbook [The Peaceful Pill] and it was banned, the medical board said you can’t be the author of that book and be a doctor. In a sense they gave me a choice and I said I’d rather give out this information.”
Exit International Southern Highlands chapter coordinator Val Butler said her decision to join was influenced by her father’s death.
“Dad was in hospital for 18 months. He got pneumonia and they kept reviving him,” she said.
“I didn’t think about it much until after he died. I thought it wasn’t a nice death at all.
“That’s when Philip was coming onto the scene in the Northern Territory. I thought ‘yes, I believe in that’.”
Mittagong resident Carolyn Clisdell said the information in the public meeting resonated with her.
“I know I’ll die one day. I’m lucky to have been given the gift of old age,” he said.
“I’ve lived long enough to see my children grow up and even have grandchildren, but I don’t want to suffer and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing.”
The public meeting and workshop was a part of Dr Nitschke’s first Australian workshop tour of 2018.