William Lee Adams
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
When someone with a terminal illness decides to end his or her life by overdosing on barbiturates, they may hope the drugs will lull them into a peaceful and permanent sleep. But if the drugs have passed their expiration date or lack a sufficiently lethal concentration, the would-be suicide victim may actually survive — risking an array of complications including coma, reduced physical functioning and the opprobrium of disapproving friends and family. Now, in an effort to provide certainty to those contemplating suicide, one of the world’s leading euthanasia advocates plans to sell barbiturate-testing kits to confirm that deadly drug cocktails are, in fact, deadly.
“People who are seriously ill don’t want to experiment,” says Dr. Philip Nitschke, the physician known as Dr. Death for his efforts to legalize euthanasia in his native Australia. “They want to know they have the right concentration of drugs so that if they take them in the suggested way, it will provide them with a peaceful death.”
The kits, which will debut in Britain in May and retail for $50, include a syringe that allows users to extract half a milliliter of barbiturate solution without breaking the sanitary seal. “Clearly, sterility doesn’t matter given that death is the desired outcome,” Nitschke says. But the solution deteriorates slower in a sterile environment, allowing those with painful conditions to “lock it away in the back of the cupboard in case things gets too bad.” The extracted sample is then mixed with chemicals from the kit; a color change indicates a lethal solution. (See pictures of suicide in the U.S. Army recruiters’ ranks. )
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Nitschke began devising the kits two years ago in response to growing demand from members of Exit International, the organization he runs that distributes information on end-of-life methods. Increasingly, the group’s 3,500 members are obtaining sodium pentobarbital, a clear solution used to anesthetize cats, dogs and horses, from online sources based in Mexico and Southeast Asia. “For whatever reason, the suppliers have been taking off the label when they ship it,” Nitschke says. “People want reassurance they’ve not just bought a bottle of water.”
That hardly justifies a suicide test kit, say anti-euthanasia groups, who are up in arms about Nitschke’s move. “Nitschke is an extremist and a self-publicist,” says Peter Saunders, director of Care Not Killing, an anti-euthanasia group in London. “He will prey upon vulnerable people with these kits, and as a result they won’t get the medical treatment and proper palliative care that they really need.”