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Woman who had attended euthanasia workshop kills herself

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 07 December 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:1320
  1. Christopher Zinn
  1. Sydney

    The prime minister has called it appalling, and police are investigating the role of controversial euthanasia advocate Dr Philip Nitschke, after a 79 year old woman killed herself after saying she was tired of living.

    The death last month of retired, French born academic Lisette Nigot has reignited the euthanasia debate in Australia, because she had attended one of Doctor Nitschke's euthanasia workshops two years ago and stayed in touch.

    Dr Nitschke said he tried to dissuade her, but Ms Nigot had been hoarding the barbiturates (secobarbital (Seconal)) she had used for many years. “I tried to talk her out of it, but it seemed to me she was determined to take the final step,” he said.

    He released to the media a note pinned to her bed. “After 80 years of good life, I have [had] enough of it,” she wrote. “I want to stop it before it gets bad.” She had previously written to Dr Nitschke to thank him for his support and inspiration.

    Ms Nigot, a spinster who lived in Perth, would have turned 80 on 15 December. She had Meniere's disease, which can cause blackouts and dizziness. Dr Nitschke said she was terrified of being trapped in her body by a stroke and unable to speak.

    The West Australian police are inquiring into whether anyone assisted her suicide, and prime minister John Howard entered the debate by saying that healthy people should not be encouraged to take their lives, whatever their age.

    “I'm appalled to think that we have reached the situation in this country where any aid or encouragement is given to a healthy person … I have quite strong views against euthanasia generally,” he said.

    Professor Ian Hickie, the head of the national depression initiative, said he had no confidence in Dr Nitschke's assessment of a patient's mental state.

    “If I was contacted by a person, as a doctor my first obligation was to conduct a formal psychiatric assessment, not provide advice on how to kill oneself,” he said.

    Ms Nigot planned her death for some time, reportedly acquiring the secobarbital on a trip to the United States some 20 years ago. She emptied 200 capsules into a bowl of water, washed them down with some vodka, and took some antinausea pills.

    “She was not the slightest bit interested in doing it until it was the right time,” said Dr Nitschke. “She obviously realised it wasn't much good running around at the last minute to acquire Seconal.”

    This year Dr Nitschke ran about 20 workshops, each four hours long, around Australia. He said they are usually booked up and that the average age of the participants is 75 years.

    He said the participants are warned that assisting suicide is illegal, but he claimed that more people at his workshops are reporting they are simply tired of life.

    Attending one of the workshops last week Ms Sharon Isle, aged 25, said she was angry the mental state of those going to the seminars was under scrutiny. The point is that that sort of thing [healthy people committing suicide] is a heresy to those who believe bodies belong not to people but to God.”

    Professor Peter Baume, patron of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New South Wales, said rational suicide as appeared to be the case with Ms Nigot was a credible option and the case had only drawn controversy because of her links with Dr Nitschke. “If you take someone diagnosed with motor neurone disease, it might be perfectly rational for someone to kill themselves,” he said.

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