NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico (Reuters) - Elderly foreign tourists are tapping Mexican pet shops for a drug used by veterinarians to put cats and dogs to sleep that has become the sedative of choice for euthanasia campaigners.
Tourists from as far as Australia have traveled to Mexico to buy liquid pentobarbital, which causes a painless death in humans in less than an hour, right-to-die advocates say.
Clutching photos of the bottled drug to overcome a lack of Spanish, they have maps sketched by euthanasia activists to locate back-street pet shops and veterinary supply stores near the U.S. border. There they can buy a bottle for $35 to $50, enough for one suicide, no questions asked.
“We have a moral right to a peaceful death. I don’t want to die with a total loss of dignity, incontinent, barely able to see and stand up, suffering as my mother did,” said Bron Norman, a healthy 65-year-old Australian woman who spent $2,860 to fly to Mexico in March to buy pentobarbital.
Used legally across the world to anesthetize and euthanize farm animals and pets, pentobarbital, sometimes known by the trade name Nembutal, is tightly restricted to veterinarians.
But lax regulation in Mexico means it can easily be bought.
Euthanasia campaigners call it “the Mexico option” and say they are willing to travel so far because pentobarbital is one of the few drugs that produces a reliable and tranquil death by sending a person to sleep before shutting down breathing.
“There are few countries in the world where the drug is as readily available as in Mexico,” said Australian doctor Philip Nitschke, who set up pro-euthanasia group Exit International.
Exit International has helped 250 people from Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand get pentobarbital in Mexico over the past few years. And, it says, interest is growing.
“You do this trip because you want an insurance policy,” said Michael Irwin, a British euthanasia campaigner and former United Nations medical director who plans to take a dozen Britons to Mexico this year to buy the drug, helped by Exit.
“You make (the trip) in good health so that if you become terminally ill this can guarantee you a quicker exit.”
Foreign buyers usually fly to U.S. border cities and cross over to Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo or Ciudad Juarez, the group says.
A Reuters reporter buying a bottle in Nuevo Laredo was given a range of brands to choose from.
Aging populations in rich nations have sparked a global debate over the legality of euthanasia and the right of terminally ill people to bring forward their own deaths.
Euthanasia is legal only in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the U.S. state of Oregon and doctors in those countries can use pentobarbital to end human lives.
Many Christians around the world oppose so-called mercy killings, saying they go against God’s will.
But the case of Chantal Sebire, a French woman with an incurable face-distorting tumor, rekindled the pro-euthanasia camp. Sebire was found dead of an overdose in March days after a court rejected her bid for assisted suicide.
In devoutly Catholic Mexico, most terminally ill entrust themselves to family or doctors rather than seek euthanasia.
A Mexican health ministry spokesman said it was working with the agriculture ministry to step up control of veterinary medicines, but declined to give details.
Australian interest in the “Mexico option” grew after the government overruled a state-level euthanasia law in 1997.
The Australian government banned Nitschke’s book, “The Peaceful Pill Handbook,” which gives tips on everything from carbon monoxide to buying pentobarbital in Mexico.
U.S. anti-euthanasia groups also deplore such activism. In the late 1990s, American doctor Jack Kevorkian — dubbed Dr. Death — was convicted of second-degree murder and jailed after he helped at least 130 people end their lives.
“We shouldn’t treat people as animals are treated. Every day of life is to be valued as a gift,” said Lori Kehoe of the U.S.-based National Right to Life movement. “Economics are driving the suicide debate. It is cheaper to get rid of someone than to treat them well until the day they die.” (Additional reporting by Magdiel Hernandez; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Doina Chiacu)