People are dying wishing to die earlier

Yes, this article is about euthanasia, also known as assisted dying, dying with dignity, mercy killing or assisted suicide to the anti-euthanasia lobby. Call it what you will, it’s the same thing.

WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of dying people which may be disturbing to some readers. Caution is advised.

Why am I qualified to speak on this? Apart from being a human being and citizen of South Australia, over the past two years, I have had the miserable experience of watching both of my dearly loved adopted parents die lingering deaths.

I know this happens to a most people, and I know nursing home and hospital staff watch this day in, day out. I don’t know how they do it. My admiration for them exceeds that of any sportsperson, scientist or charity worker. Their dedication and care is a wonder of the world that makes building the pyramids seem like kids playing with blocks.

The sad fact is we are finite beings. I am going to die, you are going to die, and your children and your grand children will die too.

Horrible thought, isn’t it? – and I truly hope all of your families live full, happy and healthy lives. Fortunately, being in Australia, statistically, most of us will do that, with only the few issues as we move into the twilight of old age.

The South Australian Parliament debated a bill to allow voluntary euthanasia last night. It is an emotive topic for some, as to some it means dying with dignity, others read it as murder.

As predicted, it lost in the House of Assembly, but by the barest of margins, on the Speaker’s casting vote. Thus change is getting closer, and is inevitable, so the anti-euthanasia lobby are celebrating a Pyrrhic victory. Once approved, it will be here to stay forever, and they know it.

As for all matters where I feel I need to make a decision one way or another, I studied various points of view on this, starting in my teen years and still read information from both sides, mainly those opposed, to this day. My opinion has changed little in that time.

I support voluntary euthanasia (VE) as a dignified means for a human being, if so wishing to end their own life early, when their own prognosis is clearly terminal and they face acute pain in their last stages of life.

“I do not support voluntary euthanasia who do not want it for themselves – that is why it is voluntary.”

I do not support VE for those people who do not want it for themselves – that is why it is voluntary. They have the right to die as they wish. Which, is the whole crux of my argument. The debate comes down to those who want it for only those who want it for themselves, versus those who oppose it for everyone.

What is clear in the documents and debates I have read and heard on this issue over the years is that the opponents of VE will oppose it in any form, with any safeguards in place, for anyone, at all. Their opposition is total and unyielding. It is dogmatic.

The very good reason for this dogmatic disapproval is simple – the vast majority of VE opponents are doing it for religious reasons, which means power. Religion wants power over you, your body, your life, your money. Your religion dictates what you do with your life.

This is generally fine by me. As long as you don’t hurt anyone else, I am comfortable for you to have your beliefs, and I will not even be offended if you try and ram it down my throat, as I am very good at listening to other people’s points of view, and I like to hear from people who don’t agree with me. As long as they have empirical evidence to back up their claims.

The reason many MPs oppose VE is not because of belief but fear of religious zealots’ reaction at the ballot box. Anti-euthanasia campaigners are well organised and well funded from church money. Pro-euthanasia campaigners are not. I have been told this by a few MPs, some of whom are supporters, and some opponents, of VE, privately.

This is irrelevant of overwhelming community support for VE, as MPs are afraid that some electors won’t be voting for pro-VE MPs, but may vote against pro-VE MPs. They are correct because this is how the cashed up conservative church groups run – they threaten MPs with a barrage of letters, emails and phone calls. The VE groups do not have this money or organisation but have relied on real life stories of the pain and anguish families go through watching loved ones die horribly to change MPs’ minds.

Another excuse for opposition to VE is that it will open the door to a scenario where disabled people will be forced to die—disabled-views/ which again is not what VE is about. Remember, VOLUNTARY – the individual MUST give their consent.

What? Why? Well, it is a good scare tactic, and diverts attention from the real issue. I, nor anyone I know, support disabled people wanting to die – unless they are in their final stages of terminal illness – being permitted to go down the VE path.

Unfortunately some of the disabled community have fallen for this as part of their genuine and proper campaign for disabled rights. Not only is this quite unnecessary, but it is damaging the credibility of their wider disabled rights campaign, as it diverts support away. But it does gain attention!

However, my favourite opposition approach is the one that proffers the nightmare scenario similar to Logan’s Run where people will be killed by their governments when they reach a certain age. If we as a society really are heading down that path, then VE for the terminally ill is the least of our worries. It is of course nonsense, just another outlandish scare tactic.

“Death really is the final frontier.” 

Death really is the final frontier.

We can talk about sex and politics quite comfortably, gosh, even full frontal nudity has been on TV in Australia since the 1970s, but when did you last see a documentary or realist fictional account of the last days of someone dying of cancer or Parkinsons? I mean realistic fiction because the pathetically sanitised American made drama shows we are subjected to here are as real as the manifestly insincere gush of affection from your elderly aunt at Christmas. They only show relatively healthy looking actors with some make up and poor lighting – think Barbara Hershey in Beaches, which is one of the more vaguely realistic dying scenes in US film.

They won’t show real life lingering death. It is just too horrible.

Yet, every day, this happens to hundreds of Australians in their final day.

Back to my parents. My mother was firm in her views against euthanasia. She believed that medical science would progress to the stage whereby one day people could live forever, regardless of illness, and she was determined to have every opportunity to see that day, and take advantage of it.

Many years ago, my father, somewhat tongue in cheek, attempted to debate this with her. He was met with a volley of invective and not terribly coherent phrases supporting her point of view. After a while, I tried to stop the argument telling my father that my mother had the right to decide what she wanted done with her life, as it was her life. She nodded her agreement.

“That’s fine,” he said, “But if I want to die earlier without becoming a vegetable or a lingering death from cancer, am I allowed to?” he asked.

“No,” she said, “No one has the right to decide when you should die.”

We ended that conversation, despite the obvious contradictions, hypocrisy and her almost unchallenged dogmatic position. Such were my parents when discussing something ‘controversial’.

Ultimately, on Boxing Day 2014 I visited my mother in her nursing home room, to find her lying there languidly, silent, and her eyes apparently not making contact with me. I called staff and a doctor was found who confirmed she had suffered a massive stroke, from which she would not, could not, recover.

She didn’t. She never spoke again, nor seemed to acknowledge human contact. I went there to see her almost daily, and on January 3rd, told my father that he should not visit her again. She was unable to eat, with minimal fluids, and her body was shrinking as she lost weight, and she was turning brown from once her fine porcelain paleness.

Thankfully, she finally died on January 12th 2015. I saw her the day before, her skin stretched over her skull and arms, all I could see of her body; her head looked like a prune with mould on it, being her once beautiful white hair.



“His mind was now on his own likely looming mortality.”

My father did not see the worst of this, but suspected it I guess, from what he didn’t say. His mind was now on his own likely looming mortality.

In late August this year he was finally moved into the same wonderful nursing home as my mother, in the very next room in fact, for his final weeks, having spent some time in the equally wonderful Mary Potter Hospice.

His oncologist had agreed that further chemotherapy, radiotherapy and blood transfusions would not extend his life, nor quality of life after his three year battle against what started as bowel cancer. A doctor there told me he had four to six weeks to live.

He was fine for two weeks, but then deteriorated badly, the cancer in his lungs, liver, bones and god knows where else by now, were so painful, and regardless of the painkillers he was given, he was still in excruciating pain. He was given enough morphine like drugs to knock Phar Lap onto the next track, but he wasn’t allowed to take any more or it would kill him. So much for palliative care.

Eventually, through lack of nutrition – he had refused to eat or drink – and the drugs, he fell into a coma from which he did not wake. His skin went yellow, due to his failing liver I was told by a nurse, and his skin stretched over his face and eyes too.

Just after an hour into Adelaide’s big blackout in September, which I stress, had no effect on this nursing home as it had a fully functioning back up generator, I visited him, and he died in my presence, his eyes staring at the ceiling, mouth open, arms curled up like a sleeping dog. He had died four weeks to the day after the doctor has said four to six weeks.

His final countenance is burnt into my memory. I see it every night as I go to bed, and every morning as I wake up, and sometimes during the day a lot, too.

He was a beautiful man, of rare kindness, generosity and a true gentleman to all. No one had a bad word to say about him. He didn’t deserve to die like that in a so called enlightened modern western democracy. I have been present when three of my dogs have been euthanized – they died with more dignity than my father.

He had told me months earlier he had wished he could die…

He had told me months earlier he had wished he could die, painlessly, with his children, grandson, sisters and my dog by his side. He wished this could happen if he only had a few weeks to live before he lost the ability to appreciate what little life he had left.

He wanted to die with dignity, relatively pain free.

The laws in this state still prevent this, and surely with some more negotiation, that will soon change, despite some people still saying this is wrong.

No, those who oppose it are wrong. You may be a good person, you may live a fulsome, wholesome life and do much good, but if you want to continue to prevent others from dying with dignity in these situations, then please take your religion, your misguided problems, your gutless pandering to the anti-euthanasia lobby and your fears of some future dystopian world and look after yourself only.

I will not, ever, support anyone who wishes not to die earlier than ‘natural’ being forced to die earlier, and will join you to fight that.

It is your right, to deal with your body as you see fit. I don’t want VE for you.

But, please, cannot we have that right too?

One comment

  • Marlene Robinson

    Thank you Mark for your fight for us the people in SA who have a terminal illness.
    Your article is very well put and because of your sad, heartbreaking experience with the slow and painful deaths of both your adoptive parents very moving and relevant to this VE debate.
    The politicians here in Adelaide have not listened to us the voters so we all need to know just who they are as they have broken our trust and sold us out.
    Yes I do have a terminal illness, I do not want to die, I will fight with everything I have right up to the very end but I have the right to choose a peaceful death when my Professor confirms that it is time for me to go with dignity.
    Please SA you are better than this, please we need VE.

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