"Dr Death" says Britain ignoring end-of-life needs

LONDON (Reuters) - The government is ducking the increasingly urgent issue of right-to-die legislation by turning a blind eye to Britons using Swiss suicide clinics to kill themselves, according to a leading euthanasia campaigner.

Euthanasia campaigner Dr. Philip Nitschke poses for the photographer with his 'suicide kit' after a Reuters interview in London May 7, 2009. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Dr Philip Nitschke, who says he was the first doctor in the world to administer a legal, voluntary, lethal injection, said it is time for Britain and others to heed growing calls for choice about dying, and allow access to effective suicide drugs.

“They like the fact that the Swiss allow this. Clearly it serves the interests of political forces here to keep that option available,” said Nitschke, an Australian who founded the Exit International voluntary euthanasia group in 1997.

British law says assisting suicide is a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

But since 1992, some 100 British citizens have ended their lives at the Dignitas facility in Switzerland -- where assisted suicide is legal -- without their relatives being prosecuted.

“What we are saying to our members is ‘Okay, you can go to Switzerland and you can get the best drug, and die in Switzerland. Or alternatively, you can get the drug into Britain -- if you want to break a law or two -- and you can have exactly the same death here,” Nitschke said in an interview on Thursday.

Nitschke says a barbiturate originally used as a sleeping pill is the “best drug” for ending life peacefully. He says his “ideal” situation would be for all people over a certain age -- say 75 or 80 -- to have legal access to it if they wanted it.

Nitschke, who came to Britain last week to start a tour of lectures on assisted suicide, was stopped and questioned for several hours by immigration officers when he arrived, but was eventually allowed in on the understanding he would complete his tour and be “on a plane out of here” within nine days.

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Exit International has around 3,500 members worldwide, with 300 in Britain. But Nitschke, who has earned the nickname “Dr Death” for his work on assisted suicide, said the ranks of those wanting more knowledge about suicide -- and effective means to carry it out -- are swelling rapidly.

“Elderly people want choice. They want to know they’ve got something in their cupboard, that if things deteriorate, they can use,” he said.

Nitschke accuses some rich nations -- whose ageing populations have prompted a growing debate about the legality of euthanasia -- of failing to serve people’s desire for choice in death, forcing those who want help to die to battle through the courts or go to so-called suicide clinics in Switzerland.

Euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the U.S. state of Oregon -- and doctors in those countries can use drugs to end human lives. Switzerland only allows assisted suicide.

In Britain, Nitschke’s drug of choice is used by vets to put down animals, but its availability is strictly controlled for humans. In Mexico, it is freely available over-the-counter.

Nitschke’s book “The Peaceful Pill” -- which is banned in Australia -- details how the drug can be obtained in Mexico and shows photographs of the packaging and formulations it comes in to help foreigners buying ensure they have the right thing.

He has also developed a kit -- dubbed by critics a “suicide kit” -- which he says will allow anyone who has obtained a suicide drug to test it and make sure it will work properly.

“Efficacy and peacefulness are the two premier concerns of a person wanting to end their life,” he said.

Nitschke insists he is not encouraging people to break the law -- even though he told audiences at his lectures he knows “hundreds of people” who have bought the drug in Mexico and “flown back to this country with no problem.”

“When you look at developed nations, this is an issue of growing significance as baby-boomers age and want to have that control over the lives,” he said.

“We wait for decade after decade for politicians to act ... but elderly folk really haven’t got the time.”

Editing by Tim Castle and Jon Hemming