Dr Philip Nitschke has for decades been synonymous with the debate over whether a person has a right to die. For the most part this debate has taken place in the narrow context of people suffering terminal illness. Between 1 July 1996 and 25 March 1997, when Canberra intervened, mentally and physically competent adults in the Northern Territory could choose to end their lives with medical assistance or by procuring drugs if they had a confirmed terminal illness and the support of three doctors, including a psychiatrist. After the Commonwealth overturned the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1996 (NT), Dr Nitschke founded Exit International, an organisation that campaigns for "rational suicide" and regards terminal illness as only one of a range of legitimate motivations.
On Wednesday night, following allegations that Dr Nitschke had failed to refer a suicidal but not terminally ill man to counselling, the Medical Board of Australia used emergency powers to suspend him immediately from practising as a doctor. Dr Nitschke has responded angrily, describing the suspension as political. It's now clear, if it wasn't before, that the Medical Board and Dr Nitschke have positions which differ at the level of fundamental philosophy.
The original Hippocratic Oath, historically sworn by medical students upon entering the profession, prohibited doctors from procuring abortions as well as administering "deadly medicine". Society has changed in the intervening 2500 years, and the Oath has been revised often and is now less and less used in practice. But a changing society generates points of passionate debate. The question of whether we have the right to choose the timing and manner of our death, now that we have the technological capacity to do so, is one that's unlikely to end with the conflict between Dr Nitschke and the Australian Medical Board.
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