May 05, 2009

"Dr Death" Visits the UK: Weighing up his 'right to speak'

We often get to pass judgement on others based on short stories in the media. Consider the news today. A doctor from Australia has been lecturing today on assisted suicide in Bournemouth, England.  I thought I'd utilise my simple ABCDE approach of ethics and see where my own morals lie in the case, as presented to me by the media in various guises on the way home from work today.

Consider the reporting of Dr Paul Nitschke's arrival in the United Kingdom today. My own perspectives from the media taken from an interview on BBC radio 4 was as follows.

  • He's a doctor (but what sort?- internal medicine? anaesthetics? Doctor of music?)
  • He's here speaking in the UK on assisted suicide (which remains illegal in the United Kingdom)
  • He's an eloquent speaker
  • On the surface the arguments he puts forward seem to be rational with an explanation
  • He was detained by the UK immigration authorities and then released.
  • He apparently appraises forms of assisted suicide, and provides information on them to members of the public
  • He has been much criticised
  • He presents the activities he's undertaking in the UK as legal

I know nothing more of the man other than from this brief summary. So can I still apply the ethics? Yes, as I in common with other people will initially form an opinion  based on the available evidence


B= Beneficence

C= Consent/ Confidentiality

D= Do no harm

E= Equality

Based on my assessment of the media on his arrival I asked myself two questions. In my opinion

  1. Should he be refused entry to the UK?
  2. Should he be allowed to lecture in the UK?



Consent/ Confidentiality

Do No Harm


Should he have been refused entry to the UK




No (Possibly)


Should he be allowed to lecture to the general public in the UK


No (possibly)


No (possibly)


This argument could be replayed with any number of questions. Look at the issues in bold, which I consider up for debate on the web.

Entry to the UK: I don't think this should be refused based on his opinions from the interview however this depends and is inextricably linked to my second question. This therefore becomes a bit of a 'cop out' however it reveals that this is not the central issue. This is made clear when Nitschke himself who said on the BBC:

In terms of keeping your borders closed so we can have a free and open debate thats a bit of an oxymoron

Conclusion: I think he should be allowed to enter the UK based on the evidence I've heard.

To take the second point, should he be allowed to lecture: the fact that this is such a sensitive and emotive medical, psychological and social issue, the best way forward is probably not to have an unregulated speaker who may (unintentionally) have an adverse effect on a patient or individuals decision to harm himself without due cause.

But... Will we be having the debate if he doesn't first begin to make a stand? Possibly, but not I think probably. It certainly is a topic which needs discussion, but the ethical arguments are in this instance a minefield. So on the grounds of beneficence and Do no harm, my opinion from the basis of what I have heard is that he should not be allowed to lecture to the general public in the UK.

Now the research: Searching the web this evening brings me to a number of links.

  • Sky news covering the story along with other various media outlets (The Times, The Independent to name a few).The BBC also covers the story and an audio interview can be heard online here.

I think I'll let you draw you're own conclusions, but I'd be more interested to hear people's views on these sorts of ethical issues that get discussed in a 3 minute slot on the radio. Please post comments if you

  1. disagree with the above
  2. have any thoughts on a simple one minute ethical approach like the one above
  3. have strong opinions on anything thats discussed here.

Remember this is the viewpoint on discussing a persons right to speak based on a media interview, nothing more.

- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Dr Not Death

    As a non death doctor I found all this quite confusing from the media reposts about what was legal and what not.
    I think the legality of the discussion should have been covered in more detail by the media.
    I largely agree with your opinion, and I guess the ABC approach might be interesting for students unfamiliar with this kind of ethical dilemma.
    I don’t think UHCW will be inviting him to speak.

    06 May 2009, 15:35

  2. James Bateman

    I think it’s imporant to clarify the legality of any discussion like this in the media. I’m not sure this was clear when I heard the media reports. It probably partly reflects the fact that the law on this issue is not unclear, but highly complex. For example is it (or morally should it) be legal to explain how different available chemical/ pharmacological substances can end a life?

    08 May 2009, 10:58

  3. The issue is further complicated by differences in legal procedure across the European Union and in non-EU countries for example with companies like Dignitas providing services in Switzerland for assisted suicide. Whilst these remain in operation, rather that criminialising people who travel, surely its time for a wider debate on the issue.

    08 May 2009, 11:03

  4. James Bateman

    Thanks Abigail. The Swiss do seem to have their own perspectives on this case. Whilst its distasteful to discuss individual cases, the issue certainly seems to affect people from all walks of life, and at all ages: this is part of the problem, but an essential point in any discussion about Dr Nitschke.

    08 May 2009, 16:16

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