How Australia’s Euthanasia Laws Abandon Young People
Ten years ago, before Gideon Cordover became the Federal Election Campaign Manager for the Tasmania Greens, he was a 19-year-old kid who had just lost his father.
“My dad managed to get an assisted death. An interstate doctor helped him by giving him access to medication, which he then smuggled back and had a good death,” he said. “But that whole process of trying to get the medication was a huge risk to him and the family.”
When his dad was first diagnosed with Motor-Neurone disease, Cordover, like many young people, “never thought about death” and felt “immortal”.
“It was really that personal experience of my dad getting sick and seeing the amount of suffering and also seeing the negligence of that suffering,” he says. “His autonomy was taken away from him right when he needed it most. The right to make a decision of where and how to die was denied to him.”
Witnessing his dad suffer was a realisation to Cordover that “death is inevitable” and “if the strongest guy in the world like my dad could get sick, well then it could happen to me”.
“As young people, we are constantly being told ‘work hard, try your best’, and then at the very end, somebody else steps in and says ‘no you don’t have autonomy over your own body’,” he says. “To me, it just feels like a basic human right issue that as a society we haven’t yet fully come to terms with.”
“I think as young people we are reaching a time where we will stand our ground, and not just wait for the small group of elites to decide whether or not to give us our rights.”
Cordover believes that young people of today are more empowered, have awareness and a real appetite for creating change.
“[Young people] are not scared, and they’re not going to shy away and voluntary assisted dying is just another one of those areas, where young people deserve to have the right,” he says.
In his ten years of following the debate, Cordover says he has learned that there is a disproportionate amount of political power being held by a tight minority of people.
“I think as young people we are reaching a time where we will stand our ground, and not just wait for the small group of elites to decide whether or not to give us our rights,” he says. “Democracy is about making your voice so loud that [politicians] can’t ignore you. My dad had a voluntary assisted death and at that time that wasn’t legal, but just because it wasn’t legal, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t right.”
The Problem With The Victorian Bill
Early last month 54-year-old Troy Thornton packed his bags, said goodbye to his family and friends, gave his son, Jack and daughter, Laura, a hug and together with his wife left for Basil, Switzerland, where on Friday, February 22, Thornton was legally euthanised.
Thornton, from Mount Martha, Victoria, didn’t qualify for a recently passed state bill that legalised assisted dying because he wasn’t “terminally ill” or “dying within 12 months”. The Victorian bill emphasises the ‘requirement’ of suffering rather than being about “the right to choose”.
“For people like me who have a Motor-Neurone disease, it’s not necessarily a terminal condition,” Thornton told Junkee in a phone interview before his death. “You can live for years, but the quality of life is not there anymore.”
“There are all different kinds of suffering, pain is just one of them. I haven’t been able to kick the footy with my son for four years, I haven’t been able to run or surf, to do any of the things I love, so I’m suffering in that way.”
“My whole life I used to say to myself that there was no way I would do that to my family and friends because I’ve seen what the damage does.”
Until his forced retirement, Thornton was working as an Operations Officer at the Mornington Fire Brigade. For 30 years of his professional life, he was involved in emergency fire and rescue, including as a pararescue jumper, helicopter aircrewman and co-pilot for the National Safety Council of Australia.
Throughout his career, Thornton would get called out on suicide response to people he says “felt backed into a corner”.
“My whole life I used to say to myself that there was no way I would do that to my family and friends because I’ve seen what the damage does,” he said, adding, “This is wrong, people in Australia feel like they have to do this because they can’t do it legally.”
He led a very active life, “jumping out of planes, surfing, playing amateur footy and skiing”.
“I always figured I’d be around to enjoy sport and other activities with my kids well into their adulthood, but fate has determined otherwise,” Thornton wrote on a gofundme page he set up to seek financial help for his trip to Switzerland.
Although the Victorian law is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t help people like Thornton.
In 2014 Thornton was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy, meaning that over the years he would lose the ability to walk, run, play with his kids and ultimately, live an independent life.
“I knew what was coming over the hill, and it’s a shitty way to go out,” he said. “You don’t want your kids, family and friends to see you that way.”
Although the Victorian law is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t help people like Thornton. Therefore, it needs to change.
The Right To Die Is About Choice
According to the 2017 Roy Morgan survey, 87% of Australians are in favour of ‘letting patients die when they are hopelessly ill and experiencing unrelievable suffering with no chance of recovery’.
“[The law] needs to evolve and it needs to refocus so that it’s about choice,” Thornton told Junkee. “It’s a scary prospect for me, I don’t have the right to choose in Australia, and under the new legislation, I don’t meet the criteria. So as it right stands now, I’ve got to euthanise illegally, and that causes a lot of pain, and trauma to family and friends.”
“This way, with the Switzerland option, you have the benefit to be able to plan, prepare and that includes your family members because you’re preparing them through all the years. It’s not like I made a snap decision,” he continues. “From 2014 to now, that’s five years. I’ve lasted pretty well, and I’ve spoken to family and friends, counsellors, GPs, neurologists and psychologists.”
With doctors in Australia reluctant to help, the journey to the finish line was an uphill battle.
“In May last year my neurologist promised to give me my report close to the leaving date [to Switzerland] but then when I rang him in October, he said he had changed his mind.” This caused Thornton to miss his initial appointment with Dignitas in Zurich along with the money he had already spent for the procedure, flights, and paperwork.
Thornton said he always believed that you could trust doctors and had a right to your medical report. However, that was not the case.
“We were preparing our friends, family and ourselves and then he changed his mind,” he says. “I don’t blame the doctors; they don’t want to lose their license. It’s their livelihood — I blame the government.”
“People just think, ‘oh it’s legal in Switzerland, so you just jump on a plane and go’ but that’s not the case at all”
Thornton then approached his GP and asked to see a new neurologist to get the required referral. Fortunately, the GP who had witnessed his deterioration was sympathetic and managed to retrieve the referral secretly.
“It seems the older and more vulnerable you get; society makes it harder rather than easier for us…The most vulnerable or sick have to jump through all these hoops,” he said, adding, “and apart from that, the fact that I have to leave my home, family and friends, and I have to pay over $30,000 for travel, accommodation and the procedure”.
“People just think, ‘oh it’s legal in Switzerland, so you just jump on a plane and go’ but that’s not the case at all,” he said.
The bill in Victoria is set to come into effect June 19, and despite people’s support for euthanasia, the various state parliaments are still resistant. Thornton believes it’s because of a few “religious nuts”, which he said is fine, “I respect that, if they choose to not use that choice well good luck to them, but don’t impose your belief on me”.
Philip Nitschke, the founder of Exit International, agrees and says the opposition is “strongly motivated by religious convictions”, which has been the case for the last three decades. “That group is not going to evaporate, they will always be there, and they won’t ever agree. They [even] won’t agree with the most restrictive of laws such as what Victoria is proposing.”
With the passing of the bill, Nitschke says that Australians will soon see change “fairly rapidly”.
“The bottom line is, we have to have the right to choose because right now the law is a pain in the bum”.
“This is a breakthrough in the Victorian legislation, and I’m sure as soon as one state brings in the law, other states will feel compelled to follow,” he says.
Despite progress, Nitschke says he’s concerned with other states following the Victorian model because people in parliament often coin it as “the world’s most conservative law”. He adds that the Victorian law wouldn’t have helped the 104-year old David Goodall who had to fly to Switzerland to end his life, and it did not help Thornton.
Having the right to die should not be a privilege, but a right says Nitschke and calls the Victorian bill the “beg and grovel” legislation. Despite being critical of the law, he congratulates Victorians for breaking up the log-jam, as for the last 20 years the rest of the world including Holland, Belgium, American and Canada moved on and gave people the right to choose.
Just before Thornton hung up the phone, he said, “The bottom line is, we have to have the right to choose because right now the law is a pain in the bum”.
Anastasia Prikhodko is a trade travel and freelance journalist based in Sydney. Before coming back to Australia last year, Anastasia spent two years abroad living in Amsterdam and travelling across Europe, Russia and Korea.