Death-with-dignity [assisted suicide] patients are victims of a global political battle over capital punishment in the U.S., according to the federal Food and Drug Administration, which regulates pharmaceuticals, and the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees application of the state's Death With Dignity Act.
Access to pentobarbital, also known as Nembutal, has all but ended in the United States because U.S. prison officials use it in lethal injections for executions.
This comes shortly after two botched executions in the USA as reported on by Nic Steenhout:
Let's take the recent cases of two death-row inmates, Clayton Lockett and Dennis McGuire, where the execution by lethal injection went extremely badly. Lockett took 26 minutes to die. Witnesses say that he was gasping for breath the whole time. McGuire died more than an hour after the injection, from a heart attack, after the injection ruptured a vein, botching the execution.
The Danish pharmaceutical company that makes Nembutal has taken a political stance against US executions and is refusing supply. While various states may turn to other methods of killing prisoners on death row, the Nembutal shortage has pro-assisted suicide organisation, Compassion and Choices up in arms.
Two senior C & C people recently met with Oregon officials suggesting that 'a compounding pharmacy in Oregon be allowed to obtain the raw materials needed to make pentobarbital and manufacture a generic form of the drug. "The compounding pharmacy would buy the raw material, and Compassion and Choices would just facilitate distribution."
So, not only would C & C maintain a list of pro-assisted suicide doctors in Oregon - should you ever need one; not only would they collect and correlate the statistics on assisted suicide deaths for the Oregon Health Board, they would also help manufacture and distribute the lethal doses.
How all of this could be seen as a transparent and ethical process is beyond me. The pyromaniac is in charge at the Fire Department.
Smith bells the ironic cat: "Now, it seems to me that if the drugs are wrong to use in lawful executions, they are also wrong to prescribe to people who want to kill themselves. Death-causing is death-causing, and that ain't medicine."
But the US is not the only country experiencing a shortage of Nembutal. Following police raids in Australia on members of Exit International and charges listed against two persons for illegally importing Nembutal, Exit Director, Philip Nitschke recently admitted that the clandestine Chinese suppliers are now also steering clear of Australia.
Dr Nitschke told the Sydney Morning Herald that the police action is jeopardising supply of the drug: 'Since the raids, Dr Nitschke said, the Chinese company had stopped supplying to Australia because it's "not worth it".'
Having said all that, I do admit to holding some sympathy for those people who have been subjected to a police raid. No matter how well handled by the authorities, a knock on the door from the Police, the questioning and the attendant house search would not be a pleasant experience. However, these people would surely have been under no illusions about the fact that importing Nembutal was illegal.
It seems to me to be rather a strange sort of indignation that seeks to shift the blame here to the Police who, after all, are simply upholding the law.
But what's the harm in a person harbouring a vial of Nembutal? Plenty. The potential for the use of this drug in an abusive relationship to kill a third party should be a concern to everyone. The risk of the ultimate in Elder Abuse cannot be dismissed as the recent death of a New South Wales man at the hands of his carer makes distressingly clear. And what of the relative who knows about his Gran's stored Nembutal and uses it to suicide in the depths of a depression?
These same risks also apply to the assisted suicide laws in Oregon, Washington and Vermont. The prescription is filled and left with the patient for use at a time of their choosing and often without the doctor being present.
Former Northern Territory Chief Minister and architect of the original Rights of the Terminally Ill Act, Marshall Perron, in a recent Press Release said:
"More than 4 Australians over 70 commit suicide every week, yet their pleas for access to appropriate drugs to do the job peacefully, with dignity, are met with police raids to deny them that opportunity."
Four people suiciding each week is a problem that screeches out to be addressed, but what about suicide prevention? And how does Perron know that these people would have accessed Nembutal if they could have done so? This is guess work and supposition. But can he really say that the best outcome for these people is still to suicide but by a different method?
Perron also observed:
"We have entered a new age of DIY death, born of frustration at the lack of political progress on adopting responsible voluntary euthanasia laws. Unpalatable as some may find this, it is a fact, and the sooner it is acknowledged the more compassionate our society will be".
I'm not sure that the connection between 'DIY death' and the law can be made so directly. But, of course, it suits those who want to change the law to assert as much. Just as it does to suggest that a law change would create a more compassionate society. There is no proof anywhere that changing the law increases compassion.
Moreover, there's a category distinction here that grates somewhat. There's a difference between suicide (and its categories) and euthanasia. Mr Perron and Dr Nitschke tend to use the terms interchangeably; as do many journalists. Journalists, perhaps, have an excuse.
The obvious question from this Nembutal shortage is what will now happen globally? How will people respond? Sadly, all we're likely to see is a change of tactics and death methods advocated for by pro-euthanasia groups and individuals. Those who really want Nembutal will change suppliers and probably source the drug in South America.
We should perhaps take a moment to think about what would happen if Nembutal was the only 'DIY death' method and if supplies dried up totally. Some people might seek other ways to suicide, that's possible. But if we're talking about 'choice' as the pro-euthanasia brigade seem wont to do, then surely such a drought would open up other choices in the realm of exploring good care options. Euthanasia & assisted suicide, in that context, is really the end of choice.