By ERIN SEMMLER
We have birth plans, education plans and marriage plans but we don’t have a death plan. Should Australians have the right to choose when they die?
In July this year, an expert panel handed down a report to the Victorian Parliament outlining more than 65 recommendations for the legalisation of Voluntary Assisted Dying. The bill has recently passed through the lower house of the Victorian Parliament while legislation failed to pass the New South Wales Upper House by just one vote last week.
Law reform on this issue is widely debated with strong views from both sides.
Queenslander Vicky Crichton lost her mother on Anzac Day 2015. Brenda Bartlem-Ward was known as ‘Mama’ in their rural town due to her love for children and generosity towards the townspeople.
She passed at 73 years old after battling chronic lung disease, bowel cancer, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), diabetes, an Aortic Aneurysm and shingles.
In the small town of Sarina in North Queensland, Ms. Barltem-Ward stayed in a 16-bed hospital.
Ms. Crichton told her mother’s story with a broken voice. Her tone exposed despair, frustration and determination in the face of an extremely traumatic experience.
Despite the palliative care and an Advanced Health Directive her mum suffered horribly during her final weeks of life. In the Health Directive Ms. Bartlem-Ward had opted to have no ventilator, no artificial feeding and no hydration but she never lost consciousness so the Health Directive was useless.
“I was her attorney for health and they wouldn’t even look at that piece of paper and we tried to tell them everyday but they just weren’t having it,” Ms. Crichton said.
Ms. Bartlem-Ward pleaded with her daughter to ‘help’ her go, and at one point considered starving herself at the prospect of a hastened death.
Ms. Crichton also recalled her mother begging hospital staff to ‘help’ her go but no one could give her what she wanted without the risk of legal consequence.
Ms. Barltem-Ward would wake up each morning in tears dreading another day of agony. No matter how much suffering she endured, the doctors could do nothing more.
Ms. Crichton struggles to remember her mother happy and at peace after witnessing her gruelling end of life journey.
“When you’re going through it, you think you’re the only one,” she said.
“I know people don’t really like to talk about death but it’s going to come to absolutely every one of us,
“If we don’t have something there in line, it’s just too late, we have no choice otherwise.”
Ms. Crichton shared her story with as many people as she could. She has been overwhelmed by the amount of people who have since shared their own traumatic experiences. Some include heartbreaking stories of suicide due to terminal illness and the accompanying unbearable physical pain.
She has been campaigning tirelessly for her mother’s wish to have euthanasia laws changed. Ms. Crichton hopes that others will not have to suffer in the same round-a-bout way any longer.
She wants justice for her mum.
Voluntary Euthanasia involves a person who wants to die being injected with a lethal dose of medication by the attending doctor. Voluntary Assisted Dying is slightly different. It involves a person administering a prescribed dose of lethal medication to themself.
Voluntary Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia and Luxembourg. Voluntary Assisted Dying is legal in Canada, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and in the US states of Oregon, California, Montana, Washington DC, Vermont, Washington and Colorado.
The first country in the world to introduce a Voluntary Euthanasia law was Australia. The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 allowed the Northern Territory to perform Voluntary Euthanasia for two years before it was overturned.
Although Voluntary Euthanasia was legal in the Northern Territory for two years, only four people used it.
More than 28 attempts have since been made to change the law in Australia.
Cherish Life spokesperson Chris da Silva is concerned about the Assisted Dying legislation that has been proposed to the Victorian parliament.
“To blur the line in the doctor-patient relationship between curing and killing and in that sense making suicide in one sphere seem okay but in another sphere not okay, seems illogical to us,” he said.
Ms. Crichton explained that for those who’ve witnessed loved ones suffering for days and even weeks on end, calling Assisted Dying killing is a complete misunderstanding.
“A law that’s based on extreme cases is not a good law,” Mr da Silva said.
“All pain can be managed with good palliative care and we should be putting all of our time and resources into good palliative care.”
Palliative Care Australia said in a statement that ‘most’ pain could be relieved, leaving a minority of people with unbearable suffering and no other options. Unfortunately Ms. Bartlem-Ward and those in her position are still currently forced to live through debilitating pain.
Mr da Silva explained that Cherish Life believes in allowing a natural death.
“I think if they were supported well with good pain management plus support from their family, and if that’s not available also psychological support and counselling support, that people would be able to experience the full process of death,” Mr da Silva said.
“This involves coming to terms with their life and making peace and everything like that which is kind of stunted and cut short with the Euthanasia process,
“I think that is actually the more compassionate way to treat them.”
This may hold true for many Australians however Ms. Crichton explained that this was impossible for her mother.
“We don’t all have millions of dollars at our disposal that we can get the best doctors, and the best anaesthetists to look after our loved ones,” she said.
“We’re here in a tiny little town in North Queensland and we only have a little hospital with a few beds.”
Dying With Dignity New South Wales Vice President Shayne Higson lost her mother to brain cancer nearly five years ago. She is now a full time campaigner for law reform.
“To see someone who is dying have to die so badly just makes no sense to me,” she said.
Ms. Higson is positive about the impact that law reform on this issue will bring to Australians. After South Australia missed out by one vote on passing law last year, and now New South Wales has just done the same, Dying With Dignity is happy to see the push for Victoria’s proposed legislation.
“If Victoria is successful in passing the bill, I don’t think it will be very long before other Australian states will follow suit,” she said.
Cherish Life Queensland holds concerns for the vulnerable. However, Dying With Dignity is extremely confident that if Victoria’s Assisted Dying law is passed, only those that need it will be able to use it.
“Our legislation will have the tightest eligibility criteria in the world and the most highly safeguarded process,” Ms. Higson said.
“We are very confident that the safeguards will ensure that none of the groups who our opponents say will be vulnerable, will in fact be vulnerable.”
Ms. Higson emphasises that the proposed Victorian legislation is based off the Oregon model, which has been in place since 1997.
“There has not been a single reported case of abuse with the Death with Dignity act in Oregon, which is why more countries have legalised voluntary assisted dying,” she said.
The proposed legislation for Victoria will be accessible for mentally capable people with terminal illness or an incurable chronic disease. They must be facing death within 12 months or less, with pain that cannot be relieved.
Only the person seeking assisted dying can make a request. They would then have to be assessed by two doctors including one who is an expert in that particular illness.
Ms. Crichton’s newest project calls on everyday Australians to share their stories.
“I’m actually going to set up so people can email me their stories, and I’m hoping to collate them into a book and even if it doesn’t get published, present it to the Australian government,” she said.
You can find Ms. Crichton’s campaign and send your own stories to her at https://www.gopetition.com/petitions/legalise-voluntary-euthanasia-in-australia.html
If you or someone you care about needs support, please don’t hesitate to contact one of the following organisations:
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
beyondblue support service email or chat online at http://www.beyondblue.org.au
SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263) http://www.sane.org
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: Social and Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Services http://www.sewbmh.org.au
Culturally and linguistically diverse background: Mental Health in Multicultural Australia http://www.mhima.org.au
LGBTI, other sexuality, sex and gender diverse people: MindOUT! http://www.lgbthealth.org.au/mindout QLife line 1800 184 527
Veterans: Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service 1800 011 046