Flat White

Assisted dying: theory and practice

1 July 2017

6:21 PM

1 July 2017

6:21 PM

Last week three people died together in what is being called a ‘triple suicide pact’ in a resort island at Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Please, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing to celebrate here in the deaths by suicide of Margaret, Heather and Wynette Cummins.

The three women, a mother, and her two daughters were members of the ubiquitous Exit International headed by former doctor, Philip Nitschke. Evidence quickly emerged in the media that they had all utilised the same Exit suicide method.

As always, Nitschke was quick off the mark to go public with the association between these women and his network. Like a terrorist group claiming responsibility for some human carnage, Nitschke uses every opportunity for self-promotion.

What do we know about these three women and their situation? Margaret, the mother, was 78 years old and had been living at that address with her ‘disabled daughter’ Wynette (54) for a number of years. Heather (53) and her husband moved in about a year ago. News reports suggest that Heather’s husband returned to the apartment and made the grizzly find.

The Courier Mail reports:

The partner who found the bodies was understandably upset, but not completely surprised by the tragic scene he discovered.

“He is pretty shaken,” he said.

“He wasn’t aware that this was culminating today, but he wasn’t surprised that it has happened.

Another report said that all three women had medical problems and Nitschke said that none were terminally ill.


Wynette had brain cancer and, according to reports, had recently endured an operation. The Daily Mail reporter talked to a former boyfriend of hers who had recently re-established contact: ‘She told my about Wynette’s illness…I told her I wanted to go and visit Wynette, but Heather said she had pretty much shut herself off from the outside world,’ he said.

That the husband ‘wasn’t surprised’ to find his family deceased should not be taken to mean prima face that he knew of their plans; at least not their plans at that time. Part of what seems to be ‘standard advice’ from the death networks is to spare relatives of any possible implications. It is likely, given that these women had been planning to end their lives for some time, according to Nitschke at least, that they had planned to do so when the husband was away from the home, shopping.

But was this a ‘triple suicide’?

Nitschke claims that the fact that these women planned their suicide deaths suggests that they were ‘rational’. The implication here is that they approached and planned their demise with full understanding, each doing so voluntarily.

This claim that people suicide ‘rationally’ has been used by Nitschke and others for some time now as a marketing ploy. Whereas suicide is generally understood to be characterised by anguish, mental health, loss etc., Nitschke’s claims are a dangerous and entirely erroneous ploy for legitimacy. Is it possible to approach one’s suicide ‘rationally’? Certainly. But to assert as much is only telling part of the story.

G K Chesterton once observed that “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason”. The term ‘madman’ is a pejorative these days, but personal and professional experience tells me that Chesterton’s words apply directly to the issue of suicide. It is the ‘ties that bind’ – the connection to others, the plans for tomorrow, the relationships with others – that all diminish in the mind of a suicidal person. In other words; the things that draw them back to reality fade which affects rational thought.

This is likely not a ‘triple suicide’. Though it is likely never to be found otherwise, I am drawn to the thinking about three women living in increasing isolation; the elderly mother caring for her disabled daughter for many years. At the very least, the idea of suicide will have been the thinking of one of these then adopted, possibly by the others.

Did the disabled daughter consider herself an intolerable burden on her family? Did she even understand what was going on or was it a case of the mother deciding to suicide and realising that there would be no one left to care for her daughter so that she needed to die also? Were there other forces at play? After all, this is not a Jonestown situation as far as we know; that is, unless, one wants to make any comparison between Nitschke and the work of Exit with Jim Jones, his cult, and the Guyanese mass suicide.

As with any suicide, the deaths of these three women leave a trail of grief and unanswerable questions. Nitschke wants us to virtually applaud these women for their ‘rational’ planning or at least affirm their right to access death methods. Responding to an attack by Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director, Lyle Shelton, Nitschke said:

I did not “praise” the decision of the three women, as has been misunderstood from my statement, but neither did I condemn them for taking this path.

But you cannot sit on the fence with this issue. Silence is consent and whether he says so or not, the media frenzy around this issue is likely to, sadly, be good for his business.

But, you see, it was their choice; or so the mantra goes. And when you strip away all of the marketing and media hype promoting changing the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia and begin to realise that the main reason people choose such deaths is not pain but, rather autonomy and self-determination, then such ‘choices’ perhaps should be celebrated. They were ‘brave’, ‘rational’, ‘meticulous’, ‘considerate’ – throw all the epithets you like but it changes nothing.

Paul Russell is Founder and Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia and assisted suicide Inc., a coalition of groups and individuals who oppose the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide and support measures that will make euthanasia and assisted suicide unthinkable. He blogs regularly at www.noeuthanasia.org.au.

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