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End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill 2020

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 3 December 2020

Tags: Voluntary Assisted Dying, Legislation

End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill 2020, Cassy O'Connor MP, 3 December 2020


Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I rise to speak in the strongest possible support of the End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill 2020. I will support this bill just as I have supported each of the three pieces of dying with dignity legislation that came before it, going back to 2009. As the Dalai Lama has said, 'Our prime purpose in this life is to help others and if you can't help them at least don't hurt them'. I believe that is what this legislation is all about. Through this bill we can help the terminally suffering and we can ease their hurt as they leave this mortal plain. We can help the suffering to go gently into that good night.

I support a safe, legal framework for voluntary assisted dying in Tasmania because I believe in respect for human dignity and autonomy. I do not want to see needless suffering. I want suffering people to be at the centre of decision-making about how they will pass from this world. I support this reform out of compassion and a deep abiding love of humanity. That is not to say those who oppose this legislation do not also do so out of compassion and love and concern to protect the vulnerable. It is simply a different perspective. Each perspective on this reform, I am certain, is deeply felt and genuinely put.

This reform is much needed and long overdue. This is strong, compassionate legislation with multiple layers of safeguards to protect the vulnerable, while acknowledging extreme, unrelievable suffering also makes the sufferer extremely vulnerable. This legislation puts the person at the centre of all decision-making about the manner of their passing from this world.

In the lead up to this debate, like every member of this place, I have thought a lot about life and death. How precious and fragile each life is. How fleeting in the context of millennia and the grinding timeless machinery of a massive unknowable universe. I have thought a lot about life itself. Not just the lives of people but of every living thing on this planet. Every living spark and the intrinsic right of all beings to respect for its existence.

I have also thought about death, of course, and what makes it bearable to contemplate. What makes a good death, because such a thing is possible. The word 'euthanasia' comes from the Greek word euthanatos. It means easy death or a good death. What is that?

What do we want for the people we love when that moment comes. We do not want them to suffer. We do not want them to be scared. We want them to retain their autonomy and their dignity in their last hours and days. We want them to be surrounded by love. For our closest, we want to be there. To be holding their hand when they go. Surely when our time comes we want the same.

I have also thought a lot about my mum, Colleen, who died on 26 April 2019. Grief is a strange, bewildering process. It never really goes away. Sometimes it sweeps you off your feet like a tsunami without warning and it takes you out at the knees. I still really miss my mum. A great comfort to me is that I believe she had as good a death as it is possible to have. She had the best of medical care and was surrounded by love. After half a century of heavy smoking my mum's mighty heart gave out. I remember being at her bedside. She was totally with it mentally, but struggling for each breath. I was watching the wobbling line of the heart monitor. The story it told of her tenuous hold on life after 78 years of living, loving, giving, laughing, often arguing and always sustaining her large clan of children and grandchildren.

The day came when it was clear her suffering was very great. It was too great. My mighty mum knew her time was up. Her excellent doctors gave her a choice. They asked if she would like them to make her more comfortable. A euphemism for terminal sedation. The night before at her bedside she told me she had dreamed of running. Something, because of her chain smoking over many years, she had not been able to do for a long time. She said that she did not want to go but she told the doctors yes. I was looking right into her terrified, bright blue eyes when they administered the medication. It felt like there was no other space in the universe. I said, 'See you next time, mama'. Her hold on my eyes was like iron in that exquisitely painful and profound moment.

When my first born arrived in this world at the Royal Hobart Hospital on 13 June 1991 my mum was there. She was the first to hold him. And 28 years later when she drew her last breath my first born, her beloved grandson, Lachlan, was holding her hand.

That night I drive home to her house. The following day I started the heavy task of sorting and making sense of the material parts of her life. I found this note in a chest of drawers. It says, 'I hope you will be holding mine when I leave'. And on the back I suspect are her lotto numbers.

Charles Dickens said we need never be ashamed of our tears. Grief tears are the heaviest and they are they are the saltiest but they also over time can soothe us.

There is a tiny human in the Chamber today. A new and precious life. Her name is Tilly Gray. She is the daughter of Natalie Gray, the niece of Jacqui. Tilly is the granddaughter of the late Diane Gray. Diane never met Tilly. Never got to hold her little warm body in her arms, but Diane lives on in Tilly. Diane would be so proud of her incredible daughters, Natalie and Jacqui Gray, whose death bed promise to their mum made them powerful, relentless and persuasive advocates for dying with dignity laws in Tasmania.

I would also like to, from the deepest place in my heart, thank Mike Gaffney for working so hard, so thoroughly, with such deep commitment and heart to bring forward the End-of-Life Choices (Voluntary Assisted Dying) Bill. I do not believe we would be here having this debate in such a collaborative way if not for Mike Gaffney's work on this bill. I would also like to acknowledge the work of his tireless assistant, Bonnie.

I acknowledge the many years of campaigning for reform by Dying with Dignity Tasmania, and particularly their champion, Margaret Sing. I also acknowledge the family of Robert Cordova, who died in 2009 but was here in the Chamber when the first voluntary assisted dying legislation came into this place. I also acknowledge Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying, and former upper House member, Norma Jamieson, for their advocacy, and every person who has emailed or written to me, whether or not they support dying with dignity legislation. I am very thankful for the privilege of being able to read their stories.

Legislative reform is an iterative process and we are here today because it has been a long journey. The first dying with dignity legislation was tabled in this House in March 1985. It was the Natural Death Bill introduced into the House of Assembly by former Independent Bob James Brown MHA. It was later reintroduced by Greens member Peg Putt MHA.

In 1990, Dr Bob Brown MHA placed a motion on the table for the withdrawal of the natural death bill and the motion was agreed to, and then reintroduced the Medical Treatment and Natural Death Bill. In November 2009 former Greens Leader Nick McKim's dying with dignity legislation was negatived at the second reading in the House of Assembly. Again in 2013, legislation by then Greens leader Nick McKim and then premier Lara Giddings was brought into this House and debated. In May 2017 we debated the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill 2016 which was brought forward by Lara Giddings and me.

I want to acknowledge that in that 2017 debate there was one member of the Government who had the courage to vote for voluntary assisted dying, the first Liberal member to my understanding who had done so in this place, and that is the member for Franklin, Nic Street.

I want to thank the Premier for the work he has put into getting us to this point and making sure there is time made in the parliamentary schedule and working constructively with us to this point. I also want to thank the Minister for Health, Sarah Courtney, for having the courage to be behind this legislation and introduce it into the House of Assembly.

So here we are, Madam Speaker, on the cusp of an historic vote. I also want to take the opportunity to read into the Hansard some of the messages we have received.

My name is Jade. I am a registered nurse. I support VAD with all my heart. I want Tasmania to follow Victoria and legalise it.

From March 2015 to March 2020, I was working on 7 West, the Palliative and Supportive Care Unit at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. I now live in Hobart. I returned home in April.

In those five years of palliative care nursing I saw enormous suffering. People of all ages with terminal illnesses crying out in pain, pain that could no longer be alleviated by the prescribed analgesic. Some people begged to die. They screamed, they swore, they wept. 'Put me out of my misery' and 'I want to die' was frequently told to me. I will never forget their pleas.

In June last year VAD was made legal in Victoria and later in the year one of our patients requested VAD. This person had oral cancer. They had to get their teeth removed because their tumour was growing around them, causing pressure and ongoing pain. Even after the extraction, they were receiving numerous PRN doses of hydromorphone and cocaine mouthwash.

They were also on a ketamine syringe driver for their unrelenting pain. They couldn't sleep, they were exhausted. They met the criteria for VAD and were approved for the oral preparations. This patient told me and other staff that a huge weight had been taken off their shoulders. They said they felt great comfort knowing they had been listened to and given this choice.

I want every Tasmanian who is met with a life-limiting illness to have this choice.

This is the personal story of Helen Kershaw, who has a long connection with Dying with Dignity Tasmania -

My mum was an incredibly bright, intelligent, warm, strong, loving person and always extremely generous towards others. To mum, her intelligence and knowledge was a major part of her personality and identity. When she began struggling to find words speaking in late 2019 we knew something was going very, very wrong.

After gruelling weeks of tests, the week before Christmas 2019, just two months before mum's death, we had the news that every possible diagnosis had been ruled out and that mum had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. CJD is an extremely rare, terminal, neurodegenerative disease with no treatment, no cure and, in many cases, no known cause.

Our research on CJD unearthed what the disease would do to mum. Death through this type of disease involves the person losing all cognitive, mental and physical abilities, having constant hallucinations, seizures, going deaf and blind, and eventually starving to death.

We had the most incredible palliative care team supporting mum and us right from the outset. How lucky we were. I cannot emphasise how supportive the palliative care workers were.

Knowing mum's views on her personal autonomy and decision-making process, the team offered everything they could, but for mum palliative care wasn't going to be enough.

Terminal sedation, while allowing the body to starve to death, was not an acceptable way for her to die.

On Sunday 16 February 2020, it was a beautiful sunny morning. Mum still had her strong-decision making capabilities and she knew that she had to act to avoid the inevitable suffering while she still could. She also knew she had to protect dad and myself because the current law prevented us from assisting her in any way.

Under the current law this type of death is considered a suicide and Helen's mum had prepared a kit for herself to end her own life. She continues -

However, I believe there is a distinct difference between suicide and what my mum did. She released herself from the disease and her anticipated intolerable suffering that was coming her way.

It has to be the bravest and the strongest thing she could have ever done and I don't how she did it.

Mum and dad set up a camera to film her death so that we wouldn't be implicated in any way. She was so smart and always thinking of others right until the day she died.

On the day I made the choice to come and be present at the family home. I needed to be there for mum and be there for dad on the day of her death. Mum and I said our goodbyes to each other and I just remember mum saying over and over to me, 'I'm so sorry, my darling' for needing to do what she had to do.

She did not want to die that way but she was dying and it was the only choice left that she felt acceptable. The story goes on and it is very distressing.

Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying have written to all members and I quote this from the correspondence -

The Christian Bible is often used to support opposition to change, just as it was used in the past to resist the abolition of slavery, resist university education for women, resist the vote for women and as proof the Earth was the centre of the universe.

History has shown this use of the Bible to be inappropriate. Christians Supporting Choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying believe the time has now come to put love and compassion for our fellow human beings ahead of theological differences of opinion.

Finally, a short statement from Irene Donaldson, and this is to all of us -

Please, when you are considering this bill do not think of your personal opinion, religious or spiritual beliefs but those of your constituents.

The time is right for every person to be able to make the choice. Those who do not wish to avail themselves of VAD simply do not. With VAD there would be freedom of choice for end of life. It is with many tears I have written to ask you please vote yes.

Madam Speaker, I wanted to end my contribution today with a poem from one of my favourite poets, the late Mary Oliver. This poem speaks to the preciousness of life, even in its smallest and simplest moments, and the mysteries of death and the enormous courage it takes to face it. If we can ease the terror of an agonising death for the suffering person we can support the courage of their dying in facing their end and that is what the end-of-life choices bill is ultimately all about. This is When Death Comes -

When death comes

like the hungry bear in autumn;

when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

when death comes

like the measle-pox

when death comes

like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:

what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything

as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

and I look upon time as no more than an idea,

and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common

as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something

precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. [OK]

Madam Speaker, none of us in this place, no matter where we stand on this issue, wants to feel we are just visitors on this planet. We want to make positive change. We want to help people. For those of us who support end-of-life choices and strong protections for the vulnerable this legislation is our chance to reflect what most Tasmanians want, a safe, compassionate legal framework for dying with dignity. They also want to know we will make sure this bill is the best and safest it can be and we will honour that trust. This is the Tasmanian Parliament's chance to respect human dignity and autonomy and to bring peace of mind to the suffering.

I commend the bill to the House.