An Open Letter to Senator Brian Harradine of Australia

posted 30 July 2005

Senator Harradine-

Your desire to decrease the occurrence of suicide is commendable. Nonetheless, the Suicide Related Material Offence Bill 2005 is a bad idea. And frankly, your qualifying comments[1] in support of the bill and your choice of documents to cite in support of your position leave the impression that your decision to support the bill is based more on emotion than a rational appraisal of the factors that contribute to suicide.

The choice to use a quote of Professor Hawton from a news story[2] which appeared in The Observer a couple of years ago is an example of what I’m referring to.In a related article[3], Editor Stephen Pritchard defends Hill’s story claiming that it was “careful to include comments from leading academics”, but Hill cannot even quote correctly.The quotes she attributes to Professor Felber are a cut and paste of phrases taken from an English translation of a German article[4] that mentions Felber, but it was not authored by him nor does it quote him directly. If she is willing to put words into the mouth of Professor Felber, why would she hesitate to do the same thing to Professor Hawton? Not that I suppose you personally have familiarity with the sources Hill drew upon to write her story, but it is remarkable that you would suppose a biased and inflammatory newspaper story is a reliable depiction of anybody’s opinions aside from those of the newspaper journalist who wrote it.

Later in your comments you claim that the proposed legislation is consistent with the advice of experts, but is it? In one of the sources you cite, Becker et al [5] flatly state that “a general prohibition of suicide sites is neither practicable nor reasonable”, but that is what the proposed legislation is effectively attempting to do.You claim the proposed law shall

educate society that there is value in the life of every human being, and that special care should be provided to those who are vulnerable for any number of reasons.

Does it really do that? If the bill becomes law, the lesson it teaches is as likely to be this: that people cannot be trusted to make important decisions concerning their own lives and that their lives are not their own; that is, their lives are property of the State.

If the vulnerable people are “entitled to community protection and assistance”, then how does the proposed law provide assistance? If it is really a priority to help people in need then why waste money on the creation and enforcement of a law that does nothing to provide the assistance that they apparently need? How does this bill help people to get over depression or other aspects of their lives that inspire them to actively seek out information on how to die?

Some people who have commented on the proposed legislation point out that it would decrease a person’s autonomy by its restriction of access to information. You argue that seekers of information on suicide methods “actually have less autonomy” when seeking information from euthanasia societies because the latter get to decide whether or not a person is rational and should be allowed to have the information. Such an argument is specious- if the information concerning certain suicide methods was freely available, how could it be controlled by a small group of people who act as arbiters of rationality and competency? In any case, how does a blanket denial of access to such information lead to a person having greater self-autonomy than a person who might or might not be helped to access the information? And what is the basis for your assertion that people will be pressured to choose suicide if information on suicide methods is freely available? Are there studies that support this claim?

As for why none of the submissions opposing this legislation mention depression, perhaps they do not discuss that subtopic because the formal guidelines for diagnosing depression[6]assume that a wish to die is itself a sign of mental illness. Since the submissions are meant to point out the flaws and/or merits of the proposed legislation and not to participate in a debate as to why the reasoning of the American Psychiatric Association is arguably circular, one might understand why people opposing this legislation generally opt to omit depression from their discussion of why the legislation is faulty. But since, Senator Harradine, you are convinced that depression is not only a major factor driving the suicide rate but that it is a treatable condition, would you please explain what exactly the proposed legislation does to alleviate depression? What provisions does it make for the diagnosis and/or treatment of this condition? If it makes no provision to alleviate depression per se, then is it entirely fair to criticize those who fail to mention depression when they criticize this proposed legislation?

Of course, as you point out, suicide prevention is a very complex issue, and depression is not the only risk factor associated with those who commit suicide. But again, how does this proposed legislation address primary risk factors such as substance abuse, severe personality disorders, old age, or any of the other things which might inspire a person to seek information on how to die? It does not appear to address these issues at all. Rather, it seems more concerned with suppressing what amounts to an Orwellian “thought crime”. Yet if, as implied, the whole point of such a law would be to protect vulnerable people from being exposed to information on suicide methods and/or the idea that suicide is an acceptable option, then why does it not censor all relevant information found in all media? Why does it not also ban depictions of suicide such as are found in Shakespeare’s Othello and other literature? It does not matter that Shakespeare probably never intended for anyone in his audience to turn around and kill himself after seeing that play; it still has the potential to encourage suicide by portraying it in a sympathetic light. The proposed legislation then is not so much about helping suicidal people to not be suicidal as it is about repressing people who believe that there are fates worse than a self-inflicted death.

Overall, the impression left by your qualifying comments in support of this bill is that you believe that the main intent of people who run euthanasia societies is to make people die. You claim the bill is necessary because it:

targets those who prey on the despair…of other people by counseling or inciting suicide or by providing information on methods of suicide.”

However, Nitschke observes [7] that freely discussing suicide often has the effect of delaying if not preventing suicide attempts, and he doesn’t appear to be the least disappointed by that. Judging from what Nitschke has observed, the primary issue for people who seek information on how to suicide is more about control over one’s own destiny than anything else. While you are apparently polite enough to not call Nitschke a liar, your silence regarding this phenomenon suggests that either you do think he is lying or that human dignity does not include the right of an individual to ultimate control over his own life. If your silence regarding this phenomenon is due to another reason entirely, would you be so kind as to explain what it is?


  1. Harradine, B (2005), http://www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/legcon_ctte/suicide/report/d02.htm
  2. Hill, A (2003), Sorry you're still here. The Observer, 27 April.
  3. Pritchard, S (2003), Do we romanticise death? The Observer, 4 May
  4. K, Euclid (2003), Suicide fora on the internet. http://www.magpiebridge.net/suicidefora.htm, 5 March
  5. Becker, K et al (2004), Parasuicide online: Can suicide websites trigger suicidal behaviour in predisposed adolesents? Nord J Psychiatry, Vol58(2),pp 111-114.
  6. http://www.emedicine.com/med/topic532.htm#section~clinical
  7. Committee Hansard (1997), http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/senate/commttee/s7351985.pdf, p.76