Double suicide in Victoria: what are the proper questions that need to be asked?

Recent reports on most Australian News services concerning the double suicide of two women in Victoria using suicide apparatus purchased from Exit International are swallowing the pro-euthanasia bait dangled in front of them by Dr Nitschke. The same could be said for the news reports of only a month or so ago, also arising out of Victoria, concerning the admission by   that he provided Nembutal that was used by another Victorian man to commit suicide years before.

Dr Rodney Syme

And just in case you were wondering, there's a state election in Victoria later this year and, you guessed it, the so-called Voluntary Euthanasia Party, for whom Nitschke has been the main candidate in the past, will be running candidates in that contest.

Sure, that's a cynical view, but, taking a look at the media focus today on the women's desire that their deaths be used as some sort of push towards law reform and, that to forge law reform an election is a pretty good place to start, and I doubt that I'm the only observer drawn to this conclusion.

Much is made in the principal reports of the academic achievements of both women; the effect of which is to paint their decision to suicide as somehow rational. The subtle message being that this is what intelligent, rational people do - as if that somehow makes these suicides acceptable - it does not.

The basic story is that housemates and long-time friends chose to kill themselves. Contributing was the fact that one of them had early onset Alzheimer's disease and did not want an 'undignified death'. Her friend, in assisting her suicide, as is claimed in her letter to Nitschke, did not want to find herself by such assistance on the wrong side of the law (assisting a suicide) and took her own life at the same time.

The Age quotes Ms Parson's from the letter:

''Under the current (and we believe outdated) law in this land, the police are obliged to charge me with aiding and abetting a suicide and I am not prepared to undergo the harassment and disgrace of a prosecution,'' the letter reads.

The Herald Sun reported: Dr Nitschke admitted the women obtained equipment from him that he knew could be used as a suicide device. He said he had sold the equipment - which the Herald Sun has chosen not to detail - throughout Australia.

We assume, by this statement, (and as confirmed in Exit's Press Release today) that the method referred to was the so-called Max Dog Brewing nitrogen death method featured in a recent documentary. (link HERE. Caution - this video from VICE Media shows the method - not recommended viewing for young people)

According to The Advertiser, the women were Exit members: Dr Nitschke said the women were quite open about their plan at the last meeting of a local Exit International group they attended. He said Ms Parsons and Ms Seeger went to a euthanasia workshop in Melbourne in September, attended by about 300 people.

Nitschke told The Australian: "Suicide is not a crime. This is the only example of where assisting someone to do something lawful is a crime."

None of the media reports have chosen to question any of the above in any way. Bait swallowed, hook set. Yet there is much here that should be questioned.

Firstly, it is not lawful (meaning legal) to commit suicide or attempt to commit suicide. Australia's various criminal codes were amended to decriminalize acts of suicide for the very simple reason that bringing charges against someone who attempts but fails to suicide was and is seen as being not in that person's best interests and possibly even contributing to further depressive episodes. For suicide to be legal would require a statute to that effect. This may appear to be splitting hairs, but we need to be careful not to create any impression that the law (and therefore society) sees suicide as an acceptable answer to people's problems. The fact that assisting remains a crime points clearly to this reality. But that reality doesn't suit the Exit marketing strategy, no doubt.

If, as we understand, the chosen method of death was hypoxic death using nitrogen, then we have cause to seriously question the claim by Ms Parsons that she had effectively had no alternative but to suicide given the risk of being charged with a crime for helping Ms Seeger if she did not do so. As Exit members both women would have been well aware of Exit's marketing and promotion of a nitrogen death as being 'undetectable' at autopsy. Whilst not wanting to spell this out any further, she could have gotten away assisting her friend without such a drastic step.

What is more, we only have her assurances in the letter to Nitschke that what happened was a double suicide. Likewise, we only have the details of the letter to confirm that Ms Seeger was fully aware of what was occurring and agreed to be assisted to her death. While we can easily accept that this is what occurred, it is not a proof as such. It could just as easily have been a murder suicide.

I make this point not to accuse the deceased but to point out that the reporting of this matter effectively becomes an advertorial for Exit's services - even to those who might have sinister motives towards an elderly or sick relative.

Finally, to the question of rationality. Suicide is and remains, thankfully, frowned upon in our society; perhaps the very last taboo. Even Nitschke recognises this in one nitrogen death promotion where, in referring to the 'undetectability' of this method suggests that this could be important for those who don't want to be remembered by friends and family as uncle so-and-so who killed himself.

Again, this is a very dangerous suggestion. Certainly, on the face of it and from the letter to Nitschke, it appears that the two women did think their plans through. But that in and of itself does not talk to us about rationality. On the contrary, in fearing her demise, which is natural and understandable, Ms Seeger makes a choice in much the same way as we would assess any suicidal thought or event: that the person cannot see any other option other than the course that they chose when, in reality other options actually do exist.

Of course, as suits his agenda, Nitschke is happy to place the blame for all of this on the law. "We are languishing in the dark ages here," he told The Australian and telling Melbourne's 3AW radio: "In other words, she (Ms Parsons) ended her life prematurely because of the way the laws are currently structured." This is grandstanding and posturing, nothing more.

Nitschke also said of these deaths that they were 'in a "murky" area between suicide and euthanasia.' They have nothing to do with euthanasia. This is not the case. If there is a need to revisit the laws on assisting in suicide we argue that it should be to tighten the definitions of 'aiding, counselling and abetting' to include the opportunity to shine a bright light upon the 'murky' areas that Nitschke himself admits that he and Exit operate in.