We Can Put an End to the Suffering of the Terminally Ill

By Andrew Denton

This article was first published in the The Herald Sun on 21 June 2017 as "Andrew Denton: We can put an end to the suffering of the terminally ill".

WHY is a two times failed Gold Logie nominee like me campaigning for a voluntary assisted dying law? The reason is: I watched my father, Kit, suffer needlessly before he died. It was terrible to watch and it’s stayed with me ever since

As I’ve shared my story I’ve discovered I am far from alone. I have had hard-nosed politicians come to me and tell me — tears welling in their eyes — of how a beloved mother or father or uncle suffered in their final days. Daughters have written to me of how they pleaded with doctors for more pain relief for mum or dad, but were told it wasn’t possible. Recently, a Melbourne woman in her 50s told me of her husband’s last weeks of agony as he literally starved himself to death.

Others have spoken of more violent ways family members have chosen to end their suffering. These have all been legal ways to die. They have been excruciating and they have left a devastating legacy. There is a constant chorus of these stories — and they happen even with the best of palliative care and with the best of medical intention.

Andrew's father, Kit.

I watched my father, Kit, suffer needlessly before be died. It was terrible to watch and it's stayed with me ever since.

Our ambulance workers and police know it better than most. They see first-hand the horrific ways in which some elderly, terminally ill people have ended their ordeal.

It’s no coincidence that the most powerful push for change from within the medical community comes from the state’s nurses. It is they who see the suffering of patients close up, day in and day out. And it is they who are left to deal with the hardest question of all: “Why won’t you help me to end the suffering?”

A very clear majority of the community — about 70-75 per cent, even among Anglicans and Catholics — consistently support the idea that people in the final stage of life should be able to voluntarily end their suffering with medical assistance.

In short this has become the personal story of so many people that there is a need for public policy to address it. We can’t continue to look the other way.

Those who’ve witnessed the awful death of a loved one carry the trauma with them for the rest of their lives. They speak of an overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of desperate pleas from a loved one. And they speak, too, of guilt that they were unable to stop the suffering of those they love, even though they did everything legally available to them. Even though the medical profession did its best. We are all scarred by these experiences, particularly women, who make up 70 per cent of our carers.

Andrew Denton with his father, Kit.

Andrew Denton with his father, Kit.

Soon, a law for voluntary assisted dying will be debated in the state parliament. We have arrived at this point via an Upper House inquiry that ran for close to a year and heard from more than a thousand individuals and organisations across the state. The evidence they heard was powerful. By a 6-2 majority the cross-party committee recommended that there should be a voluntary assisted dying law for the citizens of Victoria.

THIS law is not intended to take the place of palliative care, but rather to be one more option available to a patient and their doctors at the end of life. The truth is, despite all our advances in medicine, there are some for whom even the best palliative care does not work.

A panel of medical experts is advising on how to implement a law in a way that assists those in need and protects the vulnerable. This has already proven possible overseas. There the majority of those who use the law are 70 years or older, are suffering from cancer and are in the final stage of life. In the US state of Oregon, those who use a voluntary assisted dying law account for less than 50 in 10,000 deaths. They have requested to use the law voluntarily and two independent doctors have agreed they have six months to live or less. Twenty years on, Oregon’s law is unchanged and widely accepted. Similar laws are now available to one in six Americans. The threatened “slippery slope” has failed to materialise — as have so many other dire warnings.

A law to help society’s most vulnerable — those who are dying and beyond the help of medicine — now lies within reach of Victorians. A broad coalition for change has come together under the banner of our campaign, “Stop Victorians Suffering”. It brings together the voices of the terminally ill, carers, the elderly, those with cancer, motor neurone disease or MS or Huntington’s disease, nurses, doctors, retired police, ambulance employees … the list goes on. They are the people you’ll meet at the sausage sizzle after the kids’ sport. They are the people who make our communities and our neighbourhoods. And they are ready to let their local MP know how they want them to vote.

We don’t expect our politicians to make law solely by opinion poll. But the sheer weight and breadth of support for a voluntary assisted dying law should tell parliamentarians this: first, most of your constituents will thank you for supporting the law, and; second, voters don’t want you to politicise this issue. It crosses all party lines because none of us knows when it may be our family that faces the hardest question: How can we help someone we love die, when only death will ease their suffering?