'She pleaded with me to end it': New euthanasia laws could produce a 'domino effect'

·News Editor

In 2012, Shayne Higson’s mother Jan was dying of brain cancer and the painful experience of watching her slow demise dramatically changed the direction of the Sydney woman’s life.

“The end stage of that illness was not good. She was suffering terribly,” Ms Higson recalls.

“The last 15 days in particular she just pleaded with me and other family members to end her life. But there was nothing we could do.”

Much to the family’s distress – and that of the medical staff looking after her in palliative care – all they could do was wait and bear witness to the suffering.

“The reality is that it is very difficult for medical staff to hasten someone’s death. That means there are between five and 10 per cent of people whose suffering becomes very traumatic for them, and also for their families,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

But for certain patients in the state of Victoria, that will change from Wednesday.

Jan Ryder (left) and daughter Shane Higson
Shane Higson with her mum Jan Ryder (left) before she lost her battle with brain cancer. Source: Supplied

Victoria’s assisted dying law

Passed in 2017, the state’s new Voluntary Assisted Dying Act come in to effect on June 19, allowing terminally ill Victorian patients to apply for medical help in ending their life.

It will become the only state or territory with euthanasia laws on the books. The practice was briefly legal in the Northern Territory for a period between 1996 and 1997 until a federal law overturned it.

Similar legislation to that which passed in Victoria has failed to succeed in other states including NSW and Tasmania in recent years, but Ms Higson is hopeful that Victoria’s success will cause a “domino effect.”

Since the passing of her mother, Ms Higson has become a dedicated advocate for a “compassionate way” for terminally ill people to end their life.

Shayne Higson outside NSW Parliament House with euthanasia protesters in 2017. Source: Shayne Higson
Shayne Higson, and her fellow protesters, at a Sydney rally in 2017 calling for NSW to pass assisted dying laws. Source: Shayne Higson

Will other states introduce voluntary euthanasia?

Ms Higson has stood in state and federal elections as the lead upper house candidate for the Voluntary Euthanasia Party (NSW) and is the vice president of Dying with Dignity NSW. She believes the movement is reaching a tipping point.

An assisted dying bill is due to be put before the WA parliament in August. A similar bill will be tabled in NSW, likely by the end of the year, with advocates optimistic. Tasmania’s parliament is also set to vote on the issue in 2019 and the legislation has in principle support from both houses.

Meanwhile Queensland and South Australia are both running inquiries into end of life choices - a process that led to the passage of Victoria’s new laws.

Euthanasia supporters during a rally in Western Australia in 2018. Source: Shayne Higson
A group of euthanasia supporters during a rally in Western Australia last year. Source: Shayne Higson

Policy makers will be watching closely as terminally ill patients start taking advantage of Victoria’s new laws in the coming months.

Advocates hope it will mark the beginning of an eventual victory on the issue.

“I think it will have a domino effect,” Ms Higson said. “It will certainly make it easier for the other states and territories to follow suit.”

Patients desperate despite huge public support

The Australian public overwhelmingly supports euthanasia.

The ABC’s Vote Compass which ran during the recent federal election campaign showed that a massive 90 per cent of Australians support the right to die.

Opposition is largely driven by religious groups and the catholic church.

Meanwhile it’s a mixed bag in the medical community. According to an internal survey of Australian Medical Association members, seen by Ms Higson, there is roughly a 50/50 split in support on the issue, she said.

But despite the overwhelming public support, political change has been stubbornly hard to come by.

One man who lost his wife to motor neurone disease in early 2018 spoke to Yahoo News Australia about his frustration at dealing with the political system after he promised his dying wife he would fight for euthanasia laws.

“They (legislators) saw the benefit for the families and the person going through it, but for political reasons they would vote the other way,” he lamented.

“Compassion doesn’t rate in some people’s vocabulary.”

While previously prominent on the issue, he didn’t want to be named for this story because, he said, the process of fighting for euthanasia had “prolonged the grieving experience” for him and his children.

As politicians dither, patients suffer.

Victorian firefighter Troy Thornton chose to travel to Switzerland to die by lethal injection instead of the slow painful death that the untreatable multiple system atrophy would bring him.

“There are people I know who would apply tomorrow if they were able to and travel to Victoria to access this law if they were allowed,” Ms Higson said.

Nurse among first Victorians seeking assisted dying

For those fortunate enough to live in Victoria for the past 12 months, they now have a potential reprieve.

One of those people is 60-year-old Margaret Radmore, a retired nurse diagnosed with terminal cancer who last year was told she had 18 months to live.

Margaret Radmore, pictured, is terminally ill with cancer. She was told last year she has 18 months to live.  Source: Eddie Jim/Getty Images
Margaret Radmore is terminally ill with cancer. She plans on applying for voluntary assisted dying and could be one of the first in the state to go down that path. Source: Eddie Jim/Getty Images

During her career she saw countless people die and will now be among the first Victorians to apply for the new voluntary assisted dying laws to help end her life.

Speaking to The Age, she said she shed tears when Victoria passed its assisted dying laws in 2017.

"Emotionally I have just felt so much better," she said. "It's incredible the comfort it has given me."

But it’s a comfort other Australians are still fighting for.

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