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August 26, 2017

Our Aged have Earned the Right to Leave Us if They Wish

Philip Nitschke

As the Euthanasia issue heats up again in Victoria, many in the community are wondering aloud what the fuss is all for.

For some, Victoria’s proposed law will represent an historical breakthrough. Since the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act was quashed by Federal Parliament 20 years ago, Australia has led the world in going backwards on end of life choices. Others like it this way.

As Victoria’s assisted dying law looks increasingly like a sure thing, deep splits along conscience, rather than party, lines are emerging at Spring St. Similar divisions happened back in Darwin in 1996.

The NT law got up by only one vote, that of the sole Aboriginal Member, Wes Lanhupuy.

However, 20 years later the world has moved on and we are talking about a new law. One that the Victorians have boasted is the safest law ever, anywhere in the world.

What I would add is that the law is so ridiculously cautious that very few people will be able to use it. With its 68 safeguards, the law is destined to fail even if it passes. Here’s why.

Firstly, there are not that many dying people who will have the gumption and energy to doctor-shop to get the multiple assessments and signatures required to qualify to use the law, not to mention the psychiatric review.

If you are about to die – and to qualify to use the Victorian law you have to be almost dead to begin with – proving yourself to endless doctors is not how you would want to be spending your last weeks, days and hours.

This tricky part of the proposed law rules out the masses.

Take retired palliative care nurse, Cath Ringwood, from Heidelberg as an example. Cath’s had leukaemia for 20 years and breast cancer for eight. No doctor can give her a clear prognosis of when she will die. Without a clear trajectory, she will not be able to use the law.

And then there are people like my mum.

My mother Gwen died 18 months ago in an Adelaide nursing home. I was not able to get home to Australia from the Netherlands in time to say goodbye to her. This broke my heart and remains the profound regret of my life. Not that Gwen died but that the process of her dying was so drawn out, torturous and unable to be planned.

I say this because Gwen spent six years in that nursing home and hated every minute of it.

She had in fact wanted to ‘check out’ the same year she had to leave her granny flat and move into institutional care. At least, she said she wanted the choice.

As such, my mother spent six years in a ‘home’, with people she didn’t know or like, wishing she was dead. This was torture for her.

One morning when staff asked how she felt, and Gwen replied ‘I wish I was dead’, she was served with an emergency visit from a psychiatrist.

There is no space in a nursing home to tell the truth.

Old ladies like Gwen will never be able to use the Victorian law because they aren’t sick, let alone terminally ill about to die.

Gwen was old, frail and lived without dignity. But this is different from being sick.

The law that is being served up in Victoria is in sharp contrast to my new home of the Netherlands.

Here, the political party D66 has put forward the ‘Completed Life Bill’ in Parliament that would allow anyone who is over 75 years and of sound mind to get help to die.

You don’t have to be sick. You just need to old, and of the considered belief that you have completed your life and now is the time to go.

Your family will be able to be with you. The choice will be yours.

But then the Dutch have had 20 years experience of voluntary euthanasia.  They know there is no slippery slope.

Australia could have been up there with the Dutch in progress had it not been for the likes of Kevin Andrews, Tony Bourke and all those in Canberra who voted out the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.

For my generation – the baby boom generation – we are all getting on. And just as we marched in the 60s to change the world, so we should be now.

Voluntary Euthanasia for all is what the Victorians should be aiming for, not just the privileged few.

This is why the law will fail even if it passes.

This article was first published in The Australian on 28 July 2017

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