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Right-to-die activism and government crackdowns

At the same time that right to die organizations worldwide are working to secure laws for assisted dying, numerous individuals still use “extralegal” means to end their lives. They secure secret assistance from their own physicians, family members, or friends. In addition, there are those who assist in other ways by providing information or counseling on non-medical methods of suicide, or even items or devices that can be used to help end the lives of the dying.

Not surprisingly, some individuals have taken high profile approaches to change the law and others have taken risks to provide what they see as vital information or help to the dying. The media, hungry for controversy, readily seek out such individuals, including the dying who are in need of help as well as those who provide assistance in some way.

This can certainly increase publicity for one’s cause. We see this, for example, in court challenges by and for such people as Diane Pretty in Britain and Ramon Sampedro in Spain. Even after their deaths, their names are invoked to garner support for legal change. Some deaths have even been designed to challenge laws, including Sampedro’s death as well as that of Sue Rodriguez in Canada and Nancy Crick in Australia. And there have been other extralegal efforts, some more public than others.

One of the dilemmas involved in fighting for legal change and using extralegal means to achieve it is that it can alert both the media and authorities, and the risk is that those who push the boundaries of the law may find that “the law” sometimes pushes back. We see this currently in a variety of disturbing events worldwide.

In Canada, Evelyn Martens, 72, an active member of Canada’s Right to Die Network, was arrested and charged with counseling and aiding the suicides last year of two women who were believed to be terminally ill. Some accusations involve the provision of plastic bags, tubing, and helium to aid in their deaths.

After spending several days in jail, Martens was granted bail, but with strict conditions. These include a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, possible weekly searches of her home, prohibition against her possessing helium, plastic bags, or tubing, accessing a computer, using the Internet, and even possessing right-to-die literature and materials.

To make matters worse, Martens also is being investigated by Irish police for involvement in the death of a Dublin woman with whom police allege Martens communicated over the Internet, and to whom she sold the plastic “exit bag” bag used in her suicide.

Martens’ name also is mentioned in a brief published on the Internet by the Right to Die Network of Canada. Dublin police have been inquiring about others involved with the group, and are looking at other possible offences involving Martens or others affiliated with her and the Network.

If charges are filed, extradition may be requested.

In Australia, Queensland authorities are deciding whether to file charges against any of the 21 witnesses to the suicide of Nancy Crick last year. Earlier, to publicize her cause a website was established which carried journal entries from Crick and described her intentions. The investigation into her death included simultaneous raids on the homes and offices of various individuals and groups associated with Crick and the right to die.

By all appearances, this was not solely an attempt to secure information about possible wrong doing, but also was an attempt to quill some of the more vocal proponents of the right to die in the region.

Recently, one of these witnesses said that he watched Crick end her life, was “proud to be there”, and was “tired of waiting to be charged”. The 21 never intended to remain hidden, as they were present to show support for Crick and to bring the issue into the open, but followed legal advice to stay quiet.

If charged with and convicted of assisting a suicide, the crime carries a maximum life sentence in Queensland.

Linked to Crick’s much-publicized suicide, authorities have continued their efforts to stop the work of Dr Philip Nitschke. Since the repeal in 1998 of the Northern Territory voluntary euthanasia law, Nitschke has both worked for legal change and has held “clinics” at which information on suicide is discussed and controversial suicide devices are demonstrated.

Since Crick’s death, Nitschke has been the target of what he sees as “government harassment”. Authorities have raided his offices looking for evidence, confiscated material, and have taken other actions to prevent his promotion of “self help” approaches to suicide.

This year, as he was leaving Australia for a conference in the United States, customs officials searched Nitschke and confiscated a prototype carbon monoxide-generating machine and drawstring plastic “suicide” bags. And on a more recent departure to conduct a series of workshops in New Zealand, customs staff again searched his hand luggage, laptop, and computer discs, and interviewed him all on videotape.

In a related crackdown, Australia also is planning to prevent the email distribution of any information on suicide methods. They have cited studies that supposedly show the risk of Internet access to such information.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Lesley Martin, has been charged with the attempted suicide of her mother in 1998. Martin, a right-to-die activist and writer, was arrested after describing the events surrounding her mother’s death in her book.

For a time, as a condition of her bail, Martin was not only barred from discussing her case, but also from campaigning for the legalization of voluntary euthanasia. All this occurred at the same time a Death with Dignity bill was being readied for introduction. This bill would force a conscience vote on euthanasia eight years after it was last debated by Parliament. Some see Martin’s arrest as an attempt to silence her.

These are not isolated cases. There have been others, and there will continue to be other cases for as long as individuals and groups see the need to challenge the law in extralegal ways. Though we should not see the responses by authorities as necessarily organized, they do point to a change of direction where they occur. Authorities have begun to pay closer attention to the Internet, and to information discussed within the right to die movement, and also to what is reported in the media. Authorities are no longer willing to sit back, especially when confronted. Regardless of how each of us may individually feel about these and other extralegal activities, “protest deaths”, or other challenges to authority, right to die organizations need to pay close attention to what is happening outside of their own regions.

By Stephen Jamison