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Life's Big Questions: Philip Nitschke

Summary

Sunday night's guest on Life's Big Questions with Scott Stephens is Dr Philip Nitschke, one of our
most controversial Australians. Philip's stand on voluntary euthanasia has inextricably connected
him to death, and he has a lot to say about the meaning of life too. Scott talks to Philip about
life, death, tragedy, sorrow, love, hate, forgiveness, God and betrayal. His answers are
surprising.

Story producer: Deborah Boerne

Story researcher: Wendy Boynton

Story

Scott Stephens

Hello and welcome. I'm Scott Stevens. With me today is Dr Philip Nitchske, one of our most
controversial Australians. His stance on voluntary euthanasia has inextricably connected him to
death. But that's what makes him such a fascinating guest to speak with about the meaning of life.

So Philip, welcome.

Philip Nitschke

Thanks Scott

Scott Stephens

To get a sense of your meaning of life I want to ask you about tragedy and sorrow, love, hate,
forgiveness, God, life, death and betrayal.

So Philip, are you a good man?

Philip Nitschke

I believe that the way my actions will be judged will be seen by most people to be those of a good
man. And I'm happy with the way things have gone and the way I've been able to behave. So I feel
pleased with myself and feel that I have behaved in a good way. But I'd be foolish to think that
there won't be a lot of people that disagree with that judgment. Plenty of people won't agree with
that.

Scott Stephens

Can we just take a few steps back then?

Philip Nitschke

Yes

Scott Stephens

Can we talk about your childhood? Was religion a big part of your upbringing?

Philip Nitschke

No. Look it was almost non-existent. I became exposed, I guess, to religion in a formal sense in a
way when I was sent to boarding school for a year. Concordia College, a Lutheran school, where
suddenly I was marched to church twice on Sundays and every morning to chapel as part of the
boarding school, the routine, the ritual of the boarding school. And so I guess was forced to
engage in a way.

Scott Stephens

Can we talk about god?

Philip Nitschke

Yes.

Scott Stephens

Do you believe in god?

Philip Nitschke

No.

Scott Stephens

Why?

Philip Nitschke

I suppose I always when I find myself in a situation almost turn the question around and say why
would anyone believe in god? My background is in the physical sciences, but I want to see evidence
for everything. I don't believe in anything that I can't see. I want to be able to feel it. I want
to be able to measure it. I want to be able to sense it and see its actions before I can believe in
it.

There's been some times when that's been shaken, shaken up a bit. I had some experiences and for a
moment or two, sometimes a bit more than a moment, I began to think maybe there was an entity.
Maybe there was a God.

The most bizarre one was when I was in my undergraduate years in university in Adelaide and I woke
up one morning and I had really swollen feet. Feet were incredibly swollen, I couldn't stand on
them. I was in a dreadful state. Couldn't get to university. And for whatever reason, whatever I
did that day as I was sitting there going "what the hell am I going to do?" I opened up a copy of
the bible that was there in the boarding school and the first words I read were - this is what
struck me - was "Asa was diseased in his feet." And I thought come on. How many references to feet
are there in the bible? And you open it up and you read it and nothing. So I sat there thinking
what are the statistical probability of opening a bible and reading about feet when you've got a
problem with your feet?

So my miracle if you like, I was almost converted on the spot. So for a while there I was shaken,
but then I still don't understand that. But I've occasionally reflected on that passage and I know
it pretty well. I know about Asa and his feet. And he made a mistake Asa did. Because what Asa did
was that he turned not to God but to physicians.

Scott Stephens

Did you pray after reading that?

Philip Nitschke

I think I might have. But it faded. That memory faded. It obviously hasn't faded completely because
am still thinking about it. My involvement with the idea that there's a God, I can't see any reason
for it. And I'm sceptical about it frankly.

Scott Stephens

I want to present you with a hypothetical.

Philip Nitschke

Alright.

Scott Stephens

If there's a god and if there is in fact a heaven, what do you think God will say to you?

Philip Nitschke

Oh look if there's a God, an all knowing god. An all knowing god would know that there are people
on the planet here who don't understand the concept and have argued in the way that I've argued as
to why they don't exist. So what god would actually say to me was that you're one of these fools
who allowed, you were too influenced by your, I suppose, your need for evidence and you're a sad
and pathetic example of what I am sure there will be plenty of. There will be plenty of us up there
in this new heaven I've just heard about with this god I don't believe in. Saying to the group of
us, "You're this group of idiots who didn't realise." Now I don't think that's going to happen. The
biggest thing that I will be will be amazed. I will be amazed. And then god knows what happens
then.

Scott Stephens

So what would you say back to god?

Philip Nitschke

Say back to god, "I was a fool god. I obviously misread the evidence. Clearly I got it wrong."
That's what I will be saying. But I don't think I will be saying that.

Scott Stephens

OK, so you don't believe in God, what about Spirituality? Can you identify for me your most
spiritual moment, however you want to define spiritually?

Philip Nitschke

Yes, I think that I would have to put that down. That moment and I remember it quite vividly
because it is not that long ago when I watched eclipse of the sun and I saw suddenly the planet
went black. And I said, well okay. One way of looking at it is the moon's moved in front of the
sun, so what's the surprise? It goes black when the moon goes in front of the sun.

But the other way of looking at that was this is such an awesome spectacle and it did just watching
the immensity of the events which were unfurling in that, minutes, just lasted for minutes when the
planet suddenly went black. Of just how irrelevant, insignificant we are, I am, individuals are. We
have no influence over this. This is something that is just happening out there. I don't have to
postulate a god for it, but I am still feeling that this is an immensely significant moment

Scott Stephens

It was a feeling of awe?

Philip Nitschke

Yes, a total feeling of awe. It took your breath away. It just stopped you. You couldn't be in a
place like that and see that moment when just the shimmering of the outside of the sun and not be
taken to tears. It was just immense.

Scott Stephens

Philip, it's said that if we ask what the meaning of life is then we're asking the wrong question.
Life throws up to us the good and the bad and it is what we make of that that defines meaning. So
let's spend some time exploring the landscape of your life; its hills and valleys. Who has betrayed
you? Because betrayal is something rather intimate.

Philip Nitschke

Yes. I was abandoned by my partner out at Wave Hill. I was sitting out there thinking I was a hero
because I was working out there with Aboriginal people. The woman that I had come to the Northern
Territory with had been with me for most of that time. She spent a lot of time in Katherine and
then one day a drifting American arrived out of Vietnam. Trying to fix himself up after what had
been clearly one of the most horrific experiences. He was riding his 450 Honda around Australia; 6
foot 2; James Powell. Just drifted into my life and out drifted Jenny. She just got on the back of
the motorbike and drove off into the sunset.

Scott Stephens

You knew him?

Philip Nitschke

I met him in the Katherine caravan park and said "come and meet my partner of nearly 8, 10 years at
that stage." And within the space of about a few days she said, "this person is fantastic, you're
dreadful, I'm out of here". And she got on the motorbike and she just drove off and left me
supposedly being the community adviser, the person who was the reader and writer of all important
things down at Wave Hill collapsed, a sobbing mess. And from one minute feeling I was a hero out
there doing this wonderful job as the person who was pivotal to the movement of the Gurindji
people, I suddenly became worthless.

And the Gurindji people recognised it pretty quickly. And they said you're not much use to us like
this. You'd better go.

Now okay I felt betrayed. But I mean now in retrospect I can see good reasons why she left. I don't
know why she stuck it for as long as she did.

Scott Stephens

Have you forgiven her?

Philip Nitschke

Hell yes. And I see her occasionally. She lives over in Western Australia now. And I've certainly
forgiven her because perhaps James Powell did me a favour.

Scott Stephens

St Augustine said that our lives are defined by what attracts our love. What do you love?

Philip Nitschke

I love getting involved in an issue and making changes. I love being involved in what I would
describe as important social changes which are necessary, and seeing an impact and seeing an effect
for my involvement. That makes me very happy. And that's defining my life? I guess it could well be
because my life has been determined by those issues, fighting in those issues and seeing the
changes which I see as being ones that society would judge as in retrospect in history as
worthwhile. And that's a good way to have your life defined. So I appreciate that definition; one
that I could comfortably agree with.

Scott Stephens

But not people? Your love for people or people's love for you doesn't define your life in the same
way? You're talking about causes. You are keeping things, it feels like, at a bit of an arm's
length?

Philip Nitschke

I mean I guess that's true. My relationships have been very important to me. I'm involved in a
relationship now which has been fantastic for me. It's been the best thing that's ever happened to
me.

Scott Stephens

Do you love yourself?

Philip Nitschke

Oh yes. A bit too much people would say. But right now I think I'm pretty happy with the way I'm
behaving now and the way that people are perceiving me. And of course that's obviously not always
the case. I mean I was in a meeting the other night and people were yelling out "murderer" and
"killer" in the back of the room. That's obviously, there are people out there who hate me. And I
get my share of nasty emails. Some of them that are death threats. And so clearly there are people
out there who really hate me.

Scott Stephens

Those people who called out the other day "murderer". How did you deal with that? What did you say?

Philip Nitschke

I think I said I was being accused of being a person who had involved myself in the, well they call
it murder, of four people in the Northern Territory. People who were depressed according to this
individual and should have been given better medical care, and certainly not helped to die. And
hence they're yelling out of murderer and killer.

And I was able to come back with "listen lady. I was there. You weren't". And that's the point. I
was there, you weren't. So while you're busily deciding on the basis of the limited evidence and
information that you've got that this person was depressed and should never have been helped to
die. And because they were you could accuse me of being a murderer. I can come back and say,
"Listen lady. I was there. So don't come to me with that rubbish".

Scott Stephens

That person is obviously reacting. Coming from the deeply held belief that life is sacred. Is life
sacred?

Philip Nitschke

No. I mean I don't think that. If you talk about life as this sacred gift, what sort of a gift is
it if you can't give it away? Seems to be almost like some sort of curse that one is afflicted
with. You've got this gift that you can't dispose of no matter what. That's not a gift it's a
millstone. So when you get to the point where you desperately want to abandon this gift of life,
you've certainly got to have the ability to make that decision and take that course.

Scott Stephens

Does that include youth suicide?

Philip Nitschke

Youth suicide. You've got to be an adult. You've got to know about the permanence of death. Clearly
we're not talking about children here. And of sound mind. We're not talking about people that are
suffering from some psychiatric malady. Of sound mind and adult you've got to have the ability to
give away that life.

Now of course that led to one of the biggest conflicts and difficulties that I've had when I was
accused of somehow or other advocating that 18 year olds should have help to die. What I was trying
to say was at age 18 you're an adult. We in our society deem that. You can be given a gun and asked
to go off and kill people.

Surely then you should have the information that allows you to decide when you want to give your
life away. And we should not say "I'm sorry but you can do everything else, you can go off and kill
for your country, but you cannot have access to that information." And that makes me annoyed. But
that's my particular view and the organisation I set up tends to impose an age of 50. It's going to
be argued about no matter what age we pick. There the argument goes you've got to have significant
life experience. Well my personal belief is that every adult should have this option.

Scott Stephens

You've been tempted to take your life?

Philip Nitschke

Not really. There's too much to do. I mean I would never criticise anyone who did it. And if I got
to the point of thinking, now is the time to die, I would think that I would have the comfort of
knowing that I can do this very peacefully.

Even at the worst times when everything seems to be really difficult I've never got to that point
of thinking that there may not be something else worth doing out there.

Scott Stephens

Are you scared of death?

Philip Nitschke

All I can say, well it is a bit like, it's not so much the death, it's the getting to it that
scares me most. I've seen some pretty horrible deaths. And I'm less scared because I know that I've
got access to the best drugs. And I can well understand why other people feel just like that. And I
can see why they desperately want what I've got, so I'm lucky.

I've watched a lot of death and I've seen a fair spectrum of people's reactions to this final time.
And I've been rather surprised about the fact that there's some surprises. So that leaves me to be
a little uncertain about my own position about it. I think that probably 20 years ago I probably
had a clearer idea about how I was going to die than I have today. Now I have no idea what's going
to happen. I wouldn't be totally surprised, having worked hard to have the option of a peaceful
death at the time of my choosing to be one of those people who's out there begging for every last
health dollar to be spent on them to keep them alive for another five seconds. I could be one of
those people. Demanding that the doctors achieve yet another miracle to keep me alive. I don't
know.

Scott Stephens

So what is the meaning of life according to Philip Nitchske?

Philip Nitschke

The meaning of life, in so far as I would see it, is to make a better planet. It's to make a better
world through our brief time here. Because after we've gone as we all soon will, there will be
nothing left to show for it but the things we've been able to achieve in that period. So looking at
what's around us and trying to improve it, making it better for those who follow on after us, seems
to me to be of critical importance. And to my mind that's the meaning, that's why I'm here and
that's what I want to do. And if I can achieve something in that regard by the time that I get to
the stage of death I'll think it was worthwhile.

Scott Stephens

Before you took up the cause of voluntary euthanasia you must have been involved in saving life as
well. Can you describe that for me?

Philip Nitschke

As a doctor?

Scott Stephens

Yes. Can you tell me about one life that you saved? Can you tell me about one incident that stands
out?

Philip Nitschke

Yes. Well I suppose it wasn't actually in the hospital. I was driving home and a motorbike in front
of me, this is from Darwin Hospital. And a motorbike in front of me skidded across the road. It was
about 10 o'clock at night in Darwin. Went straight into an oncoming car and there was just mayhem.
And I came driving along straight behind it and I thought "oh hell. I'm the doctor." Sort of crunch
time.

And so I suppose I got out and I did what I had to do. We managed to get - the police arrived
fairly fast. The policeman gave me his belt. I managed to get a tourniquet around what was left of
his leg. We stopped some of the bleeding and the person survived. So it was a feeling that I had
done something that was a good thing to do. I'd saved a person's life because I had acquired the
skills necessary to do that. So that was a good thing.

Scott Stephens

We've talked about a life that you helped to save, of the deaths that you assisted. Did any of them
have some form of religion, have some form of faith. And did it make any difference for them?

Philip Nitschke

Look, I was reflecting on this. It was not a topic that I spent a lot of time talking about. I was
aware of Bob Dent, the first man to be helped to die. In fact, the first person to receive a legal
lethal voluntary injection. He had clearly taken on the Buddhist faith in the last stages of his
life while he had been quite ill. In fact, while he was dying. And it meant a lot to him. And there
was a ceremony after his death at the Buddhist centre in Darwin, which I attended and was involved
in.

In terms of the other three, there were four people all up who were helped to die by me. I can't
remember the others talking about it with any significance to me. Now they talked about it
obviously with their families. They were able to be with their families as they died. I was in the
room but I was simply making sure everything worked. In other words, when they pressed the button
on the machine and when they did die, it all worked. They were with their families and I guess some
of them may well have had strong spiritual beliefs. But they didn't really talk to me about it, in
a way that I can recall.

It certainly wasn't a question that I was asking them. I didn't ask them about what they felt about
an after life; what were they feelings about the finality of this step they were about to engage
in. I was there to make sure that when they pressed the button they would die. They wouldn't might
die, they would die. In other words, I wanted to take away from them any anxiety that there could
be a mistake.

In fact it was commonly stated in those terms by them. Please don't let anything go wrong. Once
I've decided to die I want to die. And I could see the importance of that. And they felt comforted
by knowing that I was there as almost a facilitator to make sure that they would die.

Scott Stephens

You feel things very deeply?

Philip Nitschke

Yes.

Scott Stephens

Emotions of others affect you, deeply?

Philip Nitschke

Yes.

Scott Stephens

What's the greatest act of love that you've witnessed?

Philip Nitschke

Watching people who are dying. Watching people that are with them who love them. Watching decisions
being made by the people that love those who are dying to comfort and to allow them to have their
wish for their lives to end. Those sorts of decisions. People that have travelled and taken great
personal risks, sacrifices to help those they love achieve, and the most common instance I'm
exposed to now, a peaceful death.

Scott Stephens

So love is sacrifice in the face of great risk?

Philip Nitschke

Yeah I think especially. I mean that's a way of absolutely measuring love but I mean the fact that
people are prepared to take these risks for people they love. Showing great courage. I hope that I
can say I would if I find myself in that situation show the same courage. I think it is just one of
the things that really elevates the human spirit. I look at those people and I think that some of
us are capable of immense acts of love and compassion and they are uplifting.

Scott Stephens

Do you feel hate?

Philip Nitschke

Yeah I feel hate. I mean, I feel that there's people out there who certainly hate me.

Scott Stephens

But do you feel hate?

Philip Nitschke

Do I feel hate? No. I don't think so. Even people that I really don't really like, and I don't
appreciate what they're doing, I don't think that I would describe my feelings for them as other
than annoyance, extreme annoyance. And certainly I can point to large numbers of people that fit
into that pictures as far as hatred goes. Because hatred, I think would then defend or justify some
sort of extreme acts against them and I don't feel like carrying out extreme acts against people,
no matter what their decisions. I look around at some of the injustices in the world and think god
something should be done about this.

Scott Stephens

So, it seems to me that because of your fierce commitment to certain causes, maybe you've become
insensitive to the needs of those around you, so much so that you've been willing to live your life
by the principle that the ends justify the means?

Philip Nitschke

Well I've seen a bit too much of it. Times when I've not been too happy about where I almost have
adopted an ends justify the means strategy. And I've left behind in my wake some pretty unhappy
people. They would have felt, and they're right, in the sense that I should have treated them
better. And my explanation, justification was that, effectively, the end justifies the means. "This
is where we want to get. Sorry you got in the way and so I just went straight past you."

Scott Stephens

Give me an example?

Philip Nitschke

The people that I've been friends with for years, where I've decided they are no longer able to do
what I'd hoped that they had been able to do and I've moved on and found other people that are
better able to fill that niche.

I think it's a sort of a ruthlessness. It's been described as a ruthlessness. Because I need to get
the job done if you can't do it I'll just go and find someone else who can do it. What about
loyalty? What about the bond that comes out of years of friendship?

On the other hand, if I hadn't done it I could still see myself engaged at trying to do things. I
mean I wouldn't have been able to move things forward either. Sometimes I think you've just got to
get things done. "Whatever it takes," as Graham Richardson would say.

I really want end of life options to become an important, evolving, understood part of modern
society. And I think we can get there. We can get there through legislative change. We can get
there through giving people options. But you've got to trade to get there. You can't just be nice
to everybody and expect to move. I think sometimes you've got to say, you've got occasionally get
tough.

Scott Stephens

But hang on. Forget being nice to everybody, nobody's saying that. But the willingness to discard
one's friends, is that the mark of a good man?

Philip Nitschke

No it's not the mark of a good man at all. It's not something that I've done lightly. And I guess
discarding, I more or less said "we can still be friends", but the reality is that you move on. You
move on and you start finding other people who can better serve...

Scott Stephens

You moved on or they moved on?

Philip Nitschke

I've moved on and I've left them. And sometimes they've felt that I'm not taking enough notice of
them. And that's of course also in relationships where I've been involved with people that have
been my partners for long periods of time where the feeling has been that I haven't reflected their
interests. That they've put out for me to be my partner to be my lover and then I haven't looked
out for them enough. Because I'm so driven, as is sometimes the way it's described, that I've
become a person who they almost can't share their lives with, or certainly don't want to.

Scott Stephens

Philip, you're someone who is on an eternal quest aren't you?

Philip Nitschke

Eternal quest, meaning that it is going to go on forever?

Scott Stephens

Yes.

Philip Nitschke

You mean we will never get there?

Scott Stephens

Yes.

Philip Nitschke

I might.

Scott Stephens

But it doesn't matter if you do get there. There's that one further hill to climb. That one further
mountain.

Philip Nitschke

Yes well that's right. And if it wasn't this issue there would be another issue. And every time I
switch on the news and watch television I can see issues everywhere that make me very upset. I
switched on television before I came into the night and watched the last rhinoceros being killed in
South Africa and I thought this is awful. There's plenty of issues. So I guess if it was all
resolved tomorrow with legislation for End of Life euthanasia legislation in Australia, there will
be plenty of other issues and I'm certainly not going to just go back to bed and say it's all over
and start doing nothing. I mean that's really why, this is why I'm here, is to do things.

Scott Stephens

You've once said, it's a statement that's stuck with me, you have a dread of blandness. What do you
mean?

Philip Nitschke

I don't want to reflect back on my life and think it was a wasted time, the curse of a wasted life.
I would hate that. That's the thing that I would dread more than anything.

I remember, and it stuck in my mind because it came out of a book Papillon that I read, where that
quote comes out of that novel at one point. Where he looks back over his life after his multiple
attempts to try and escape off Devil's Island I think, and said that if you just sat there and did
nothing that's a wasted life. You've got to keep fighting.

And the fear of doing nothing, the fear of blandness, the fear of looking back and seeing times
when you could have done, but you chose the soft option and just made yourself comfortable, is
something that I would dread. So I want to go to my death, feeling that I have done everything I
can in the issues that have been, that have preoccupied me. Because that will be a worthwhile life
and won't be one that I can see as being one that was bland.

Scott Stephens

Phillip Nitchke, Thank you.

Philip Nitschke

Thank you.