Jessica Berens

At death’s door

Philip Nitschke is a former GP who travels the world telling people how to kill themselves

It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in Covent Garden and we are all learning how to kill ourselves. The venue is a nondescript community centre in Stukeley Street. It usually hosts activities for children, so there are crayon drawings and anti-bullying posters on the noticeboard. Today, however, a purple pop-up banner displays the Exit International logo and its mission statement: ‘A peaceful death is everybody’s right.’

Admittance to the four-hour workshop costs £50 and is reserved for those over the age of 50 and the seriously ill. The company collects around the tea hatch, everyone fanning themselves with their copies of the Exit International magazine, Deliverance.

There are 80 or so men and women, grey-haired and crepe-soled. They arrive on each other’s arms and with walking aids. A mobility scooter does a three-point turn in the narrow corridor. Philip Nitschke sits at the front with a laptop and a screen, ready to embark upon his specialist topics — hypoxic death, poisons, barbiturates, the legal issues and the ‘Swiss options’.

He is Australian, personable, jokey and voluble. He wears quite loud shirts, spectacles large enough to be amusing, and he has been photographed looking introspective in a field full of pink tulips. He doesn’t need a microphone and he warns those who want to ask questions not to wait for him to draw breath because he doesn’t draw breath.

Now 69, he has been committed to the right-to-die movement since 1996. His activities in Australia’s Northern Territory earned him the press nickname Dr Death when, having built a computer hooked up to administer a lethal dose of barbiturates, he assisted in the deaths of four terminally ill Australians.

Since then he has travelled the world advocating the human right to a pain-free death, which he believes should be at the time of a person’s choosing.

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