At the end of this month a Toronto man will appear in court charged with abetting suicide. This is not, as you might think, a case of mercy killing — a grieving husband who wants to stop the suffering of his cancer-riddled wife or a devoted son who has exhausted himself in nursing his aged mother.
Such crimes are still murders, for no one has a right to take the life of an innocent human being. But a mistaken belief that a loved one will be spared suffering extenuates the murderer’s guilt.
The case of Kenneth Law is altogether different. The 57-year-old chef supplied 1,200 suicide kits with lethal poisons to customers all over the world. Mr Law came to the attention of Canadian police after investigative reporters from The Times of London exposed him in April. It had linked him to at least four deaths, although it appears that he had mailed 1200 packages to people in 40 countries. Police are investigating deaths in UK, Canada, the United States, Italy and New Zealand.
Law’s conversation with an undercover reporter was chilling. He believed that “many, many, many, many” people had died. But he denied being a killer: “I’m not assisting anything; I’m selling a product.”
According to The Times, a number of the people who died after buying his product were young. “The oldest person we found who had died after taking his product was 38, the youngest was 17 and three were in their 20s.”
A British man, whose 22-year-old son died after buying the poison from Law’s website, told The Times: “I think he’s the man that effectively handed a loaded gun to my son. I believe my son would still be alive if it wasn’t for this man and this substance.”
“People might not consider what I do as being very favourable or in fact even criminal,” Law told The Times. “But I think it is helpful for a small, very narrow group of people who really need an avenue like this, because simply the laws of our society don’t permit it.” He was gratified by positive feedback from his customers. “They often say that I do God’s work, which is really way too much. I’m much more humble and modest than that.”
Canada has become the most liberal euthanasia regime in the world. More people die at the hands of doctors and nurses there than in any other country. But even in Canada there are limits. A doctor’s permission is needed. People need to be suffering. There is burdensome paperwork.
Mr Law apparently believed that anyone, anywhere, anytime, of any age, of any state of mental health should be able to commit suicide.
Anthony Jones, a 17-year-old from Michigan who suffered from depression, autism and ADHD, was one of Law’s victims. One night in February last year, he ran into his mother’s room desperate for an ambulance after ingesting the lethal powder. “I want to live,” he was shouting. It was too late.
Does Canada’s progressive stand on euthanasia provide a breeding ground for the kind of murderous sadism represented by Kenneth Law?
It’s possible, because the same thing happened in the Netherlands, another country where euthanasia is legal.
In July a Dutch court sentenced a man to 3½ years in prison for distributing a lethal suicide drug to 1,600 people. The man, identified only as Alex S, was convicted of helping at least ten adults to die. In some cases, their last moments were agonizing.
Mr S. was providing the drugs to people who were not terminally ill or in unbearable pain. He had even provided them to people with mental illness. “He is convinced that every person has the right to decide about their own life and believes that government policy in this area falls short,” the court said.
No one knows more about providing suicide counselling and suicide drugs over the internet than Dr Philip Nitschke, an Australian activist who has been called “the Elon Musk of assisted suicide”. He told a Canadian newspaper that Kenneth Law had been imprudent to sell the drug to young people. But he still commended his work: “He’s helped them achieve their goals. We’re watching this trial with great interest.”
Dr Nitschke is careful to stay just within the law, while helping as many people as he can to commit suicide, principally through marketing his book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, over the internet He lives in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands because the Dutch have more progressive views about suicide than Australians.
He explained in a recent interview with a Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, that no one had a right to keep people from ending their lives. What about Alex S? “A very cruel verdict,” Nitschke observed. “The judge paid disproportionate attention to how horribly these people had died, while they chose it themselves.”
“I don’t want to know why people want to die. I do not give a hoot,” he said. “I’ve talked to people who had stupid reasons. But if you want to die, you are in your right mind and you want to do it yourself, then it is not for me to judge whether you have a stupid reason for that. It’s your reason.”
Supporters of legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia distance themselves from suicide fundamentalists. They insist that their carefully drafted laws are going to protect vulnerable people from their moments of madness.
Is this true? The logic of assisted suicide and euthanasia is based on extreme autonomy: my life is my business. From that point of view, the “safeguards” touted by supporters of legalisation are not guardrails but prison bars.
Unfortunately, legalisation is creating an environment in which suicide is looking more and more like a universal right, not just a “privilege” for the sick and dying. Perhaps we should regard Kenneth Law, Alex S. and Philip Nitschke not as extremists but as pioneers. And perhaps we should expect more of them.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator. His article is printed with permission