Not a good look” said euthanasia activist Philip Nitschke to an ABC news journalist. He was referring to the fact that Merin Nielsen, the man convicted last week in a Brisbane court of the assisted suicide of Frank Ward in 2009 was the sole beneficiary of Ward’s estate.
Nielsen will serve only six months of a three-year sentence, but Nitschke said it was ‘dreadful’ that he would serve anytime at all. “He’s a person who’s now a significant criminal in the eyes of the law…although he was acting out of concern for Frank Ward.”
Concern and compassion are worthwhile emotions, but the law can never be based on emotions because they are fickle, as this case clearly shows. The law can only be based upon the reality of an action or actions and their effect upon the safety, life and property of others. Certainly, the courts can exercise leniency in sentencing, as seems to be the case here, but the law is the law.
Nitschke called the Queensland law ‘excessive’. I don’t know how you can use a comparative in such circumstances but I think we all know what he wants: the decriminalisation of assisted suicide.
Assisting in suicide is a criminal offence simply because while a person may choose to kill themselves, as soon as another person is involved, the possibility that death was not freely chosen increases significantly. The law must be both a deterrent and an educator, and while Nielsen’s time in custody might seem to some to be too short in light of some of the circumstances, the law was upheld as it should be.
To change the law would be to show reckless indifference to those in our community who, for whatever reason, are vulnerable to coercion and abuse.
Let’s look at what the media reported.
Nielsen was made Ward’s sole beneficiary not long before he died and Nielsen was $12,000 in debt at the time. Ward was not terminally ill and not at all incapacitated. Nielsen had no idea what Ward’s medical conditions might have been at the time. It was claimed that Nielsen told interviewing police “hundreds of lies” including suggesting that Ward had been given the pentobarbital by someone else while he (Nielsen) was away in Mexico (purchasing the pentobarbital).
Nielsen was the last person to see Ward before his death (which occurred on the day Nielsen returned from Mexico).
Not a good look, indeed. Justice Dalton observed that “it was relevant” that Nielsen was the beneficiary of Ward’s estate, adding that he had engaged in a “deliberate defiance of the law”. Of course, we cannot truly know what motivated Nielsen, but Dalton made it clear that her judgement was made on the basis of the law.
Nor is it a “good look” that Nitschke’s Exit International organisation had been involved with both Ward and Nielsen prior to the death. From a Brisbane Times report of the 3rd of February:
“The court heard on Friday that Nielsen and Mr Ward had met two members of Nancy’s Friends – a subgroup of euthanasia advocacy organisation Exit International – to learn how to assist in a suicide, and Nielsen had taken notes during the two meetings, in 2007 and 2008. However, the two witnesses – Beryl Morman, 74, and Bronley Norman, 68 – both told the court they could barely remember meeting with Nielsen and Mr Ward.
“They both also refused to answer specific questions about what was discussed in the meetings in case it incriminated them. It is illegal in Queensland to assist someone to commit suicide or provide any advice or counselling about how to do so. Both said they had required Mr Ward and Nielsen to sign waivers before the meeting stating they would not put the advice they had received into practice.”
The waiver would hold no force in law and most certainly would offer no legal protection if it were ever proven that they did provide advice and counselling. The news report suggests as much but proof in a court is another matter.
This post has been republished, with permission from Hope, a national network working against euthanasia and assisted suicide.