We would not have had those three years of memories with our children
Liza Harvey, Leader of the Opposition, spoke movingly in the WA Legislative Assembly on Thursday 29 August 2019, about the three precious years she and her children shared with her husband Hal after he was helped to overcome his initial depression and to reverse his decision to undergo assisted suicide in Switzerland.
I have, as most people know, been through the difficult, sad and traumatic experience of caring for my late husband, Hal, while he fought pancreatic cancer. We were told to get our affairs in order and they would try to get us past Christmas. Our children were 11 and nine; my stepdaughter was in her early twenties and our grandson, Riley, just a toddler.
Hal sank into a funk. Understandably, he became depressed and did not want to go through the treatment. He wanted to take our family to Switzerland where he could access voluntary euthanasia. I made it very clear to him that I would not be going on a holiday to knowingly bring him home in a coffin, but I would find him a good clinical psychologist so that he could talk about how he was feeling. I also said that I wanted to be able to look our children in the eye and tell them that he had fought hard to stay with them. Hal went to see the psychologist, who said he was in a grieving process and that he was mildly depressed. She said it was normal for people to feel this way when they receive a terminal diagnosis. Hal had several sessions with her and thankfully decided that he would give treatment a go. Through those counselling sessions, he also learnt that the biggest issue for him was that having worked so hard all of his life he was never going to enjoy the retirement we had planned.
We used the next three years to use the breaks between chemotherapy treatments to take the family on Hal’s retirement. He took Elizabeth and Sarah to Italy, and Jack to Papua New Guinea to fish. We all went fishing together at Scott and Seringapatam Reefs, the Kimberley rivers and False Entrance. We did the Gunbarrel Highway and the Gibb River Road, to mention a few. We did all this in the three years post-diagnosis, when his life expectancy with terminal pancreatic cancer at that time was less than six months, and he had wanted to opt out within the first six months.
Those three years are the difference between my youngest losing their father at the ages of 14 and 12, versus 11 and nine, and Hal taking his eldest daughter down the aisle at her wedding and welcoming a second grandson, our gorgeous Orlando, into our world.
This moving account highlights two of the dangers of wrongful deaths posed by the WA Bill:
- unavoidable errors in prognosis: no doubt the oncologist giving Hal a six month prognosis was making the best estimate but it was wrong. Under the WA Bill, where neither of the two assessing doctors is required to have any specialist expertise in the condition, such errors will inevitably occur and people die much sooner than they otherwise would - perhaps throwing years of their lives away;
- undiagnosed, treatable depression can lead to a decision to seek assisted suicide or euthanasia; neither optional referrals (as in Oregon) or even compulsory assessment by a psychiatrist (as in the Northern Territory) has prevented wrongful deaths due to untreated depression and demoralisation
Liza Harvey also spoke about the danger of subtle coercion from:
ill-informed friends who could not cope with their own distress in witnessing the ravages of terminal cancer, who would be saying, sometimes loudly enough for Hal to hear, “How can you let this keep going? I wouldn’t let my dog die like this.
I would have to intervene and have conversations along the lines of, “So, is he happy?” And he always was. He had a big smile on his face for every visitor. Did he talk about anything other than where his next trip was going to be? Did he say he was fed up and wanted to end it? The answer was no. Despite his poor physical condition, he was not contemplating anything other than fighting the disease. Our family was only interested in supporting him through it, but for others watching, they felt he should be released from his perceived suffering
The pressure is subtle and sometimes it is overt, but the pressure is there. For patients, and particularly elderly patients, they might feel it is a better option, to feel less of a burden, to access VAD. That should not be possible under any regime.
How can we be sure that once they have taken it [the lethal poison] home, they make the choice to use it in their own time and not at the coercion of potentially impatient relatives?
No law permitting assisted suicide or euthanasia can protect people from wrongful deaths due to coercion.