2016 / Sunday

A time of peace at the end of living

Thomas Van Leeuwen

Andrew Denton: on dying and death

Andrew Denton: on dying and death

Andrew Denton says he first became interested in the subject of death after reading The Oxford Book of Death while tandem skydiving. “It was for Live and Sweaty, and I hadn’t thought much about the mechanics of terminal velocity – the book just flew out of my hands and got stuck to my face.”

But the topic touched him much more deeply when watching his father, author and broadcaster Kit Denton, die slowly and painfully from congestive heart failure at 67.

“I asked my GP then about euthanasia and he said, ‘It’s better that it doesn’t become a law and that it stays a grey area’. I was puzzled by that.”

Andrew Denton was speaking to David Leser about his 17-part podcast series, Better Off Dead, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre on Friday. The series covers the facts of death in Australia, the laws and stories surrounding euthanasia, and explores both sides of this global debate.

“I take the charge of hearing these stories very seriously, because they are stories that need to be heard, understood, and properly discussed,” he said. “They are not to be dismissed.”

Mr Denton began his investigation by attending the first anti-euthanasia conference in the southern hemisphere, held in Adelaide last year. He says he was open to evidence that euthanasia laws were unsafe, and felt confronted by these beliefs.

“It was a total baptism of fire because I was hit with these ideas and information on what was happening in Belgium and Brussels, including evidence that thousands were being killed without their consent.”

The Netherlands was the first country to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide, in 2002. Last year, 5000 people used euthanasia, and more eligible illnesses were added to the list.

To apply for access to euthanasia, a person’s illness must be defined as “unbearable and untreatable”, a definition which opponents argue is too vague, leaving the sick vulnerable.

But he says this definition was deliberately conceived so the law could deal with a wide range of illnesses. “Somebody with multiple sclerosis. Somebody who’s had a stroke. Someone who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Someone with a severe psychiatric illness,” he said. “Although not visible pain, they may have years of suffering ahead of them.”

Andrew Denton found the Belgian government’s clarification of terminal physical pain versus terminal psychological pain the hardest question to answer, so he travelled to Brussels to see the laws in action.

He followed the case of a 24-year-old women called Laura, who had been severely self-harming for 12 years and was granted access to euthanasia on the basis of psychiatric suffering.

“That sounded so wrong. 24 years old? Psychiatric? This is a woman with potentially her whole life in front of her.”

After interviewing the doctor who recommended Laura for euthanasia, Denton realised that even though psychological pain isn’t a visible illness like cancer, it can be just as excruciating.

“The doctor said that he’d studied comparative pain between cancer patients and psychiatric patients, and extreme psychiatric pain is equal to, if not in excess of, cancer pain.”

He also found that giving people the opportunity to die in peace gave them a chance to re-evaluate their options about continuing to live.

At a Dutch euthanasia clinic, Mr Denton witnessed a case where an incoming psychiatric patient came to be euthanised, but staff referred the patient to another specialist. It was found that the patient was unknowingly living with severe Asperger’s syndrome, and after treatment went back to a full life.

“What I came to understand is there is a great paradox here in holding out the promise or the possibility, if all else fails, that we will assist you in a loving fashion to end your life,” he said. “What it did was give people a still space to consider a way to continue living, and 50 per cent of those that came to the clinic did.”

In Australia, Mr Denton looked at the complex legal situation around assisted-dying and interviewed doctors, nurses, patients and families who had personally faced the issue.

This included the horrifying case of a Tasmanian woman who was charged with assisting her dying mother and father to end their lives. The woman was found guilty but given no sentence, as the judge ruled her actions as those of mercy.

Denton believes this shows the hypocrisy of outlawing an obvious act of love. “Families and loved ones will bear the scar of that ordeal for the rest of their lives. This is the result of a country without a law.”

Andrew Denton is urging a shift in focus from the doctor to the patient when it comes to the right to choose when to die.

“I respect the views of doctors who believe euthanasia is not right for them,” he said. “But I do reproach doctors who stand in the way of other doctors who are willing to step forward and help.

“Whose death is it anyway?”