Dying with dignity shouldn’t be illegal

By the time my grandmother eventually succumbed to the effects of dementia and died, she was a shadow of her former self. Gone was the immaculately coiffed and poised matriarch with the dancing eyes and the razor-sharp tongue. Left behind was a sometimes neurotic woman, prone to outbursts and bouts of paranoia. Unable to recognise her husband or daughters, and requiring constant care, the rapid transition from housewife to house-bound palliative care patient was frightening.

The toll of my grandmother’s death on my grandfather was enormous, both physically and mentally.  Months of watching his beloved wife degenerate before his eyes finally led to him suffering a stroke, forcing him into a wheelchair for the remainder of his days.

A proud, self-made man, he was my first positive male role model, but sadly my last memory of him was trying, and failing, to have a simple conversation with him about my latest (atrocious) haircut. This final conversation was made even more tragic as my aunt had to translate his slurred and broken words.

This once eloquent and highly-educated raconteur’s last message to me were so garbled that I still feel a jab of pain when I remember watching his frustration as he struggled to say the last words I’d ever hear from him.

According to Dr Philip Nitschke there are an increasing number of elderly Australians who don’t want this to be their story; people who want the “basic human right” to have control over how they will die. As the worlds leading euthanasia advocate, Dr Nitschke believes that elderly Australians could be among the first to suffer if the Rudd Government’s proposed internet filtering law is passed later this year.

A list of 1000 websites already allegedly banned by the Australian Communications and Media Authority includes those created by Dr Nitschke. These sites “provide a rare and valuable service of information for elderly Australians seeking to make informed choices about their means of passing,” he said.

Dr Nitschke said Senator Stephen Conroy’s filtering plan was the latest in a decade-long series of moves by federal governments to make it increasingly difficult for people to get practical information on how to painlessly end their lives.

“The first move was by the Howard government’s introduction of the Suicide Related Material Offences Act in 2005 which makes distributing suicide related information via the internet illegal,” he said.

“This was followed by former attorney-general Philip Ruddock lobbying the Office of Film and Literature Classification in January 2007 to reverse its decision on approving my Peaceful Pill Handbook.”

Dr Nitschke said that these actions, coupled with the ISP filtering plan, were proof that politicians weren’t seriously listening to changes wanted by Australians. “They won’t let something like voluntary euthanasia go to a referendum,” he said.

Dr Nitschke, the founder of Exit International – a world-leading voluntary euthanasia and end-of-life choices information, education and advocacy organisation – was the first physician to administer a legal, lethal voluntary injection under the world’s first assisted-suicide law, briefly introduced in the Northern Territory in 1996. He now travels the world, conducting workshops on how to commit suicide using practical strategies such as legal drugs, inert gases and plastic bags.

He said a growing number of elderly Australians “tired of life” or looking to create peaceful “end-of-life” plans to determine how and when they will die were attending his workshops. In an interview conducted late last year, he argued that if he wasn’t providing this information, people “would probably go out and hang themselves”.

I recently spoke with an elderly person (name withheld) who has attended several of Dr Nitschke’s Sydney workshops. He said he went because he didn’t want to become a burden on his children and choosing the time and means of his passing would help him avoid prolonged suffering. He said: “Dr Nitschke’s workshop has helped me develop a plan which gives me peace of mind.”

In 2002, three elderly people committed suicide after attending one of Dr Nitschke’s workshops. One of these people, 79-year-old Lisette Nigot, had met with Dr Nitschke to discuss her situation and later took a fatal overdose after writing a farewell note in which she said: “After 80 years of a good life, I have (had) enough of it…I want to stop it before it gets bad.”

Information on the Exit International website is somewhat telling of the true nature of the demand for voluntary euthanasia information in Australia. It states that the average age of members is 75 years, most of them are well, with only a minority being seriously or terminally ill. It states: “All Exit members believe passionately in a person’s right to make informed decisions about when and how they may die.”

Now I will never know if my grandparents would have been supportive of euthanasia, however I’m sure they would have supported the rights of the elderly or terminally ill to at least have access to information that could assist them in ending their lives painlessly without loosing their dignity and independence as they did.

And as a person with a family history of dementia, mental illness, heart attacks and cancer I know there’s a fairly good chance that I may succumb to at least one of these illnesses at some point later on in life. But unlike my grandparents who never had the choice, I hope we’ve progressed enough as a society by the time this happens because I know I want the basic human right to have control over how I die, should I need it.

Note: Holland was the first country to make euthanasia legal in 2001. Euthanasia, while illegal in Australia, is also legal in parts of the United States, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

More information on Exit International can be found at: http://www.exitinternational.net/page/Home

More information on the governments ISP Filtering Plan can be found at: http://www.minister.dbcde.gov.au/media/media_releases/2009/115