No charges to be laid in suicide case in South Australia

by Paul Russell:

Paul-RussellIt is almost exactly two years since South Australian euthanasia campaigner, Max Bromson took his own life in a motel at a seaside suburb of Adelaide.

After two years of investigation, South Australian Police confirmed today that they will not be laying charges against former doctor and head of Exit International, Philip Nitschke nor Mr Bromson's family members who were present when he died.

Mr Bromson had been battling cancer for five years at the time of his death after being told he had 'six months to live' when diagnosed in 2009. He ran for the Senate in 2013 for the Voluntary Euthanasia Party. That he outlived his diagnosis by more than four years confirms the observation that qualifying periods in euthanasia and assisted suicide about 'six months to live' or similar, are really meaningless.

At the time of his death, the Police launched an investigation which included a 'raid' on Nitschke's premises in the suburb of Gilberton. Nitschke had admitted to police that he had a connection to Max Bromson and the importation by Bromson of a lethal substance. Nitschke told The Advertiser at the time, "I passed on information which gave Max knowledge of how to import the drug and what to do with it, and when the drug arrived I was able to test it to make sure he had not received the wrong drug. It was very pure."

Nitschke also told the press, in the same article, that he expected to be charged by the Police. Bromson's family were also cautioned that they may face charges.

In truth, I never really expected that Bromson's family would face charges and, reluctantly, I never really expected that Nitschke would either. Nitschke explained this himself in the press:

"Whether I am charged revolves around the vexed and murky issue of what constitutes assisting a suicide."

Murky it is indeed. What I think we can say is that Nitschke's association with Bromson was likely far closer to meeting an objective assessment of what constitutes 'assisting' than does Bromson's family. I say 'likely' simply because, from what we know, Bromson's relatives did nothing to directly encourage Bromson to take his own life. Imagine their dilemma, for which I have every sympathy.

Likewise, without any further knowledge of the investigation itself, it seems to me that two years is a very long time for family members to be 'in limbo' over possible charges.

The question then arises: does this outcome weaken the laws prohibiting assisted suicide by telling the likes of Nitschke and family members and friends of people intent on suicide that it is okay to proceed in a similar manner?

The answer is No.

The Police investigation, the collection of evidence, the cautions to all concerned and even the time taken to arrive at a conclusion send a clear message that law enforcement takes seriously its charter under the law to seek to protect citizens.

Nitschke, Rodney Syme, Tom Curran and possibly others sail very close to the edge in their activities at times. Whether it be by lack of evidence, the legal uncertainty of sustaining a charge (because of the lack of clarity as to the extent of meaning of 'aiding and abetting' a suicide) or because they lack culpability, I would still argue that, in many cases, they have 'agency' of some sort; at the very least by their public profiles. But moral agency and statute law are different creatures.

The law remains an important deterrent in assisting in suicide as do the social mores around the subject, generally. Max Bromson advocated for euthanasia on the basis of his own illness. His death at his own hands, however, in a strange sort of way, undermines his argument.

There will be those that falsely claim that because there is no euthanasia law that he was 'forced' to do what he did; but that is nonsense. I'm not setting up a straw man here; we often hear claims by those who support euthanasia that they or others felt 'forced'; either to suffer or to take some other drastic action. Often that kind of rhetoric is directed towards laying the blame at the feet of parliaments who refuse to pass legislation and, quite often, at people like me.

But, for a political campaign based on the idea of 'choice', to suggest that Bromson had no other choices - was 'forced' - is simply not true; it is to spin a falsehood. He may have refused other options - that's likely to be true - but that is not to say that there were none. He made his own decision and we need to respect that, but we also need to recognise that while there may be an emotional impetus, it is without foundation.

If it were true that Mr Branson had no other choices whatsoever (which is not the case), then we should be seriously questioning our health system and the provision of oncology, palliation and general nursing and medical services not only to this man but to every South Australian. But in those circumstances, again we find this idea of 'choice' failing the pro-euthanasia lobby: providing euthanasia in such circumstances would be no choice at all.

Best wishes to the Bromson family.

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