Mother seeks justice over son’s assisted suicide

Lucas Taylor in Berlin a year before his death. Photo courtesy Judi Taylor
Claudia Alp’s investigative feature about a mother’s discovery that her son sought the help of advocacy group Exit International to end his own life saw her nominated by the Melbourne Press Club for the 2016 Student Journalist of the Year Award at the annual Quill Awards celebrating excellence in Victorian journalism.  

When Lucas Taylor informed his family that he had decided to move from Berlin, where he had been working, to Japan to pursue career options, it seemed like a fresh start.

Little did his mother, Judi, home in Melbourne, know that March 5, 2012, would be the last time she would speak to her 26-year-old son. On April 26, Lucas’s body was discovered dead in an abandoned shed in Dresden, Germany.

Lucas had moved to Berlin from Australia in 2010 to work. When he became unemployed, he informed his family that he was going to meet friends in Europe, then fly to Japan to get a job.

On March 28, 2012, Judi received a letter from Dresden railway station, sent three weeks earlier, telling her Lucas had left his luggage there on March 12 and if she didn’t collect it, it would be destroyed.

Judi filed a missing persons report and with the help of her son, Bryce, hacked into Lucas’s email and Facebook account in an attempt to locate him. This led them to an alternate email address.

Lucas had had email correspondence with euthanasia information and advocacy organisation, Exit International, and through members on the forum, gained access to the barbiturate drug Nembutal.

Judi said there had been no warning so it was a complete shock to the family as they’d never even heard of Exit.

“I wondered why he would want to kill himself,” she said. “He was unemployed. He did an arts degree that he always regretted. He was a very deep-thinker. Things that were unjust at school would really upset him.

“He did carry a lot on his shoulders. I don’t know if anything had actually happened over there in Berlin. I don’t know if he self-diagnosed on Google or whether he was just severely depressed and decided that life wasn’t worth living. I’m just left guessing.”

Judi said there have been a lot of “don’t know whys”, but after contacting the Victorian Coroner’s Court two years ago, she has finally been asked to make a submission.

Philip Nitschke, founder of Exit International, said his organisation should not have to take the blame for the death of individuals like Lucas and that society held some of the responsibility.

“It’s all very well for mothers for example to say: ‘This is a tragedy. My son went out and killed [himself],’ but what rarely happens is for the families themselves to look very closely at the family dynamics that may have underpinned some of that decision making,” he said.

“Those same individuals who want this information banned are totally unaware of, or it seems unconcerned, about the fact that the provision of this information is immensely beneficial to large numbers of elderly people.”

Exit International’s website says the organisation only provides membership to adults aged 50 and over and asks for photographic identification. However, with one tick of a box and possible fake photographic ID, Lucas gained access to the Exit forum online.

Nitschke said Exit upholds the age restriction as best it can by asking potential members for photographic identification, asking why they’re interested in Exit and want access to resources, such as the Peaceful Pill Handbook, and conducting searches based on their email addresses.

“We find people, in a sense, who are lying to us about why it is that they want access to the book,” he said. “If they’re doing that, we can, and we do, say quite quickly that because of that, they’re not going to be given access.

“If a person comes along and sets out to deceive and gets away with it and then effectively ends their life, what can you do about people who are out there attempting to try and thwart processes and get whatever they want? They may well have been acting in an informed way.”

Judi said that there was no record of Lucas ever being asked for photographic identification. He only had to pay his membership fee to gain full access.

Lucas told Exit International forum users that he had decided to use Nembutal in one of these posts. “Other people said, ‘Yep, that’s the way to go,’” Judi said. “No one ever said, ‘Why are you here? What’s your story?’”

In one of his final posts, Lucas admitted he was able-bodied and healthy. He asked how much Nembutal he needed to take. “A Doctor Ted, who was advertised in the newsletter as being a new staff member to handle questions told him it didn’t matter,” Judi said. “All he needed to do was…

“If he’d actually spoken to anybody about it who wasn’t from Exit, maybe they would’ve pointed out to him that this isn’t like choosing a university. This is something a whole lot more serious.”

Lucas told users on the forum that he would fly to Peru and “follow the plan”. Judi said he made bookings at a particular hotel and she found email receipts of tours he had planned which he said was suggested so that no one would be suspicious.

“Others said they were going to follow what was in the book, make sure lots of alcohol and cigarettes were around to make it look like they’d had a big night out, fallen over and died from misadventure,” she said.

“People inherently want to do the right thing. They think that at the end, it’ll be okay, they won’t be upsetting anybody and they’ve cleaned up the mess. What could be better? It becomes a selling point.”

Nitschke said this practice is common among members who end their lives. “There’s a stigma associated with suicide and sometimes people don’t want that to be the case,” he said. “Many people don’t want ‘Cause of death: suicide’ on their death certificate.”

After purchasing Nembutal, users advised Lucas how to bring it back into Germany. Judi said the advice was detailed enough to include what type of clothing he should wear so he wouldn’t look like a drug-dealer.

“They said: ‘Don’t go via Berlin, it’ll be picked up. Go via Munich, for example, because it’s easy and they can’t check everybody,” she said. “There was a lot of mob mentality. It was if they were going on a camping holiday except they weren’t. They were killing themselves.”

Paul Russell, executive director at HOPE, an organisation that aims to prevent euthanasia, said even if euthanasia was administered by medical professionals, it could change how they see their patients over time.

“When that kind of development happens, there’s no logical reason for not allowing anyone who wants it to have it regardless of whether they’re sick or not,” he said. “In principle, I wonder what would happen to the medical profession when those who are charged with healing all of a sudden also have the capability of killing.”

Nitschke said that disenfranchising elderly people who benefit from access to information based on individuals who acted in ways that were not in their best interest is something he finds discriminatory and can never support.

“We’re trying to balance two things here and you should not, I think, use the example of one tragedy to try and then say that no one should get the information, because in my view, that’s a much bigger tragedy,” he said.

However Mr Russell said euthanasia in any circumstance is an act of despair which could have an impact that is much worse than expected if legalised in Australia.

“Once we start to talk in terms of euthanasia for people who are suffering from terminal illnesses, we really are giving a very clear message that we don’t see any hope and perhaps they shouldn’t either.”

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