“If you drink this, you will die.”
Those were among the last words Shirley Justins says she spoke to her long-term partner, Graeme Wylie, in March 2006. Moments later, according to Justins, Wylie poured a lethal dose of Nembutal into a glass and drank it. The Australian died a short time later.
Justins told her story during a controversial trial before the Supreme Court in New South Wales in which she is accused of murdering the 71-year old Wylie, a former Qantas pilot. During testimony last week, Justins admitted to assisting Wylie commit suicide but denied being part of a murder plot. Caren Jenning, a friend of Justins who purchased the Nembutal in Mexico, is charged with being an accessory to murder.
The case is controversial for several reasons. Wylie suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which led to the denial of his application for legal euthanasia in Switzerland. He also changed his will a week before his death, leaving nearly all of his $2.4 million estate to Justins, who rejected that she had a conflict of interest. In addition, Jenning admitted lying to police to avoid investigation into Wylie’s death.
The trial has also featured testimony from Australia’s top euthanasia advocate, Philip Nitschke. The founder of Exit International advised Wylie, Justins, and Jenning on possible methods of suicide in 2005. Nitschke taught them about euthanasia tourism, a thriving industry in Mexico that provides an opportunity to purchase Nembutal in pet shops under lax regulations. Some advocates call it “the Mexico option.”
Nembutal is popular among euthanasia campaigners because it causes painless death in humans in less than an hour. Veterinarians around the world use it to anesthetize and euthanize animals, but the drug is not readily available to the general public—except in Mexico.
Do humans have the right to a peaceful death? Nitschke and Jack Kevorkian think so. As the Australian courts determine the fates Justins and Jennings, advocates for euthanasia will continue to fight for the right to die on their own terms.
And they’ll go to pet shops in Tijuana to do it.