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Going gently into a question of life and death

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Andrew Denton has forged a considerable reputation on his knack for getting his interview subjects to open up, often about painful experiences.

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But it was own painful experience of watching his father die a painful and protracted death that set him on his current path.

Denton, the sometime TV comedian, producer and talk show host, is on a sabbatical from the medium while he spearheads a national campaign to advocate for dignity in death, through state-based voluntary euthanasia laws.

Denton’s advocacy group Go Gentle Australia this week launched the social media campaign “Be The Bill” in South Australia, in partnership with the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.

Its intent is to raise awareness and support as state parliament prepares to decide the fate of the latest bid to legalise euthanasia in SA, a bill championed by longtime campaigner and Labor backbencher Steph Key, and co-sponsored by Liberal frontbencher Duncan McFetridge.

Denton, who has privately lobbied both Premier Jay Weatherill and Opposition Leader Steven Marshall, is cautiously optimistic that Key’s latest legislative foray will finally find majority support in a conscience vote in parliament.

“Talking to politicians there, I get a sense there’s a rising feeling amongst them that this is the time,” he tells InDaily.

“They’ve seen laws overseas and reports coming form overseas, and that there’s a strong evidentiary basis that you can write good laws with strong safeguards that do what they’re supposed to do… there’s a strong sense this can be done.”

While Denton last month addressed the National Press Club on the work of Go Gentle Australia, he says euthanasia laws are “really a state by state issue, as health tends to be”.

“I don’t think there will ever be a uniform national law [so] we’re approaching it state by state.”

And he’s hoping SA, with Key’s bill, will be the first domino to fall.

It does, conspicuously, have the strong personal support of the Premier, with Weatherill telling parliament recently about his own grandfather “begging the doctor to end his life”.

“And he represents many politicians who have personal experience,” Denton says.

“When they see why a law is needed from a personal point of view then their mind turns to how can we write a safe one, and it moves beyond that sense of nervousness.”

He also has the vote, if not the fulsome support, of the Opposition Leader.

“Steven Marshall, and I respect this, says he personally doesn’t support a law for euthanasia but he does respect the right of people to make up their own mind, which is a core Liberal philosophy,” Denton says.

His own father, writer and broadcaster Arnold “Kit” Denton, died of heart failure in 1997, after a series of health problems.

The younger Denton has described the death as akin to “waterboarding… trying to suck air through a damp mask, drowning and being revived again”.

“When your heart fails, fluid backs up in your lungs and you spend all day, every day, fighting for breath,” he told the press club.

It’s truly terrible, the way some people die… it’s savage, it scars people

Denton will never know whether Kit would have chosen to end his life if euthanasia had been an option.

“I really can’t tell; he may not have used it, but he would have appreciated the choice,” he says now.

But it wasn’t until many years later that his experience led him to his current mission.

“[Before my father’s death] I guess philosophically I could understand [euthanasia], but I hadn’t to be honest given it a huge amount of thought,” he says.

“Even though I did think about it around the time of my father’s death, it wasn’t until much later I truly began to engage with it as an issue… the closer I looked at it and the more I began to speak to people at all stages of dying and see why they needed this law, the more I began to understand that the arguments against it were not strong, fear-based, and didn’t stack up, and the more I became determined to be part of this push for law reform.”

He has spoken with numerous doctors and nurses, “not all of whom support this law, but all of whom tell stories about those patients they can’t help”.

He has spoken to patients, their families and says he has “heard it from all angles”.

“It’s terrible, the way some people die,” he says.

“It’s truly terrible – it’s savage, it scars people [who witness it] for the rest of their lives and it’s unnecessary; we can write a law that safeguards the vulnerable. It’s not beyond our wit to do that.”

A key question appears to be how to instill the zeal of those, like Denton, with personal experiences that have led them to support the notion of assisted dying in those lawmakers who approach the issue without that firsthand experience.

“I don’t think the challenge is the instill zeal in people, but to instill understanding in people,” Denton replies.

“You don’t have to be personally motivated in that way; Steven Marshall is a case in point.”

He says many opponents merely need a “reassurance that the law will be safe” from abuse, and says that reassurance is often provided “once they understand how these laws, as they’re proposed, will work”, with the involvement of two doctors, nursing staff and “mainstream medical procedures”.

In this, he says, the support of the nurses’ union has been vital, with professionals able to “talk [politicians] through things like ‘what does terminal mean’, and able to explain to them what they confront on a daily basis”.

“Despite the best help of palliative care, there are patients beyond help of modern medicine,” he says.

He points to the “North American model” as providing a reassuring template, with legalised voluntary euthanasia in Oregon, Washington, California, and Vermont “aimed at people in the final stages of life”.

“The vast majority of people who use them – and it’s a very small percentage by the way – have the disease you’d expect them to be dying of, which is cancer,” he says.

But he says the experience in jurisdictions where euthanasia is legal suggests even then, few dying of cancer choose to end their lives.

“And that’s at the core of this – it’s voluntary. Here’s a news flash: people don’t actually want to die. Even [many of] those who are dying of things like cancer will not take this medication… but what we do know is having that control, that knowledge that if things get so bad you can do something about it [is important].”

Denton says while we talk about “palliative care”, euthanasia can “palliate that sense of fear and give control back to the patient”.

“When any of us are that last stage in our life we want to have that control; we want to die with our family and friends around us, in a way that we’re ourselves, not somebody torn apart by illness.”

Key expects a vote on her bill late next month. She is meeting with various MPs in the meantime and is open to moving amendments after consulting with colleagues.

This is the third euthanasia bill Key has introduced to parliament, and one of 14 in recent decades.

“We’ve come pretty close on the two bills I’ve previously introduced,” she said today.

“I think this time, assuming we can have a proper discussion about amendments people will support, I feel pretty hopeful.”

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