The death of a 104-year-old Australian scientist in a suicide clinic in Switzerland is a tragedy, not a triumph of self-affirmation.
In May this year, a 104-year-old Australian scientist gave a press conference to world media in a crowded auditorium in Switzerland. Sitting in a wheelchair and flanked by euthanasia campaigners, Dr David Goodall declared that “Everyone over middle age should have the right unquestioned to end their lives as and when they choose.”
The next day he was dead.
Dr Goodall, a distinguished ecologist, was not terminally ill. He was just tired of living. He was frail and his hearing and sight were poor, but he was lucid and not in any pain.
So, as a long-time member of Philip Nitschke’s Exit International organisation, Dr Goodall was turned into a poster boy for legalising suicide on demand—so-called “rational suicide”—in Australia and elsewhere. A GoFundMe campaign organised by Dr Nitschke raised enough money to finance a business class flight to Basel. There he died with the help of the bizarrely named Life Circle/Eternal SPIRIT Foundation, a splinter group from the better-known organisation Dignitas.
Originally from England, Dr Goodall earned a PhD from the University of London in 1941 and a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Melbourne in 1953. He retired from teaching in 1979 but continued with his research. He even edited a 30-volume series of Ecosystems of the World after his retirement. An attempt by Edith Cowan University to take away his office at the age of 102 because he was unfit to be on campus failed after an international uproar. He was believed to be the oldest scientist working in Australia.
“I greatly regret having reached that age,” he said upon reaching his 104th birthday. “I’m not happy. I want to die. It’s not sad particularly. What is sad is if one is prevented. My feeling is that an old person like myself should have full citizenship rights including the right of assisted suicide.”
Seeking an early release had been on Goodall’s mind for years and he had already attempted to commit suicide.
When the time came, Goodall retired to an undisclosed location in Basel, together with a doctor from the Eternal SPIRIT Foundation, Dr Nitschke, and family members who had travelled from the US and UK. Dr Nitschke, in his dual role as “music director” of the death and the P.T. Barnum of “rational suicide”, played a recording of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Goodall died just as the chorus ended. Dr Nitschke was jubilant. “David Goodall is exactly the sort of member that Exit is made of and is proud of,” he said in a press release.
There are a few lessons to be learned from this sad episode.
- Pro-euthanasia organisations are eager to exploit the loneliness and isolation of the elderly. Dr Nitschke was at the front and centre of organising Goodall’s departure from Australia. And a credulous media seems too incompetent to look beyond the cheerful burblings of press releases. Headlines like “The beautiful way 104-year-old Dr David Goodall chose to spend his last day on earth” were the result of shallow thinking and unquestioning acceptance of Nitschke’s enthusiastic promotion.
- The lonely and socially isolated are vulnerable. Although Dr Goodall was healthy enough, considering his age, he did not seem well supported in day-to-day life. The turning point for him seemed to be a fall in his one-bedroom flat. Although he did not break any bones, he was unable to get up from the floor and remained there for two days.
Although the extensive media coverage about his decision focused on airport hugs from his grandsons, Goodall’s family life must have been less than satisfactory. He had been through three marriages. None of his four children and 12 grandchildren accompanied him on his trip to Switzerland. Instead, his travelling companion was the West Australian coordinator of Exit.
- Pro-euthanasia organisations are willing to take short-cuts.The Swiss organisation which facilitated the suicide claims that it has very strict criteria for assessing eligibility for its services. Yet two doctors assessed Goodall’s mental capacity on Wednesday without ever having met him.
- The goal of pro-euthanasia organisations is nothing less than a universal right to suicide. Most of the public’s support for euthanasia and assisted suicide comes from people who think that no one should be allowed to die a lingering death in torment. But Goodall and his mentor Nitschke were advocating something completely different: a state-supported right to die at any age, for any reason.
- “Rational suicide” is the ultimate act of selfishness.Goodall insisted that he wanted “no funeral, no remembrance service or ceremony”, according to Nitschke’s press release. Why? “David has no belief in the afterlife.” But that’s not the reason that most people have funerals—it is to allow othersto grieve and find solace. All of us are bound by countless ties of love, gratitude and example to those around us. Rational suicide is a declaration that no one else has any right to make a claim on us if we unilaterally decide that life is not worth living.
This is a dangerous philosophy. The day after Goodall passed away, a murder-suicide of seven people, including four autistic children, occurred in Western Australia, his state. It was the biggest mass murder in Australia since 1996. All the facts are yet to come out, but obviously someone decided that his (or her) life and the lives of the four children were not worth living, either.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet the webzine where this article first appeared.