Euthanasia bill in Tasmanian parliament has a human face

There are a few principal issues that tap into core human ethical and instinctual reactions. 

Death is one of those issues. 

But, however uncomfortable or confronting, death will be in the spotlight of the Tasmanian parliament in 2017 when a voluntary euthanasia bill is tabled. 

But behind the legislation are real people, with real stories.

Nica’s story

When Robert Cordova died his family was instructed to destroy his writings. 

He left instructions he was not to be buried according to his faith, but was to be cremated so there was no chance his body could be exhumed. There was to be no ceremony as it would prolong the time before he was cremated. 

Mr Cordover made these requests to protect his family from his death. 

At the end of 2008 Mr Cordover was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. 

“His mother had died of motor neurone disease so he knew exactly what was going to happen,” Mr Cordover’s wife Nica said. 

As they left the neurologist’s office following the diagnosis, Mr Cordover raised the idea he may not want to endure the entire disease cycle. 

As he faced this daunting diagnosis, Mrs Cordover said her husband was alienated and marginalised by the fact no one would speak to him about his end of life concerns. 

“No doctor would talk to him about the thing that was most on his mind, which was having an easier death than that which motor neurone disease was going to leave him,” Mrs Cordover said.

“Doctors are too terrified for fear that they will lose their license for advising a suicide that they will not talk to you.”

So, aware of the limited time he had before his body failed him, Mr Cordover began to research how he could end his life when the time came. 

“He spent the first three months after his diagnosis thinking about this, every day he sat at his computer researching it,” Mrs Cordover said. 

“But that was a time that should have been spent having fun while he could still manage to.”

As he lost more and more muscle strength and control, he began considering any way he could successfully end his life. 

“He suggested that we take him out to sea and abandon him, or take him out to the desert or bush and leave him there because these were the only options that were available to him,” Mrs Cordover said. 

Finally, they flew to Melbourne where Mr Cordover met with Dr Rodney Syme.

He gave my husband the best palliation of anyone because he in fact allowed my husband to gain control of his own passing. - Nica Cordover

“He gave my husband the best palliation of anyone because he in fact allowed my husband to gain control of his own passing, which showed a great deal of courage on Dr Syme’s part but also a great deal of respect for my husband,” Mrs Cordover said. 

In 2009, Mr Cordover ended his life peacefully with the aid of a euthanasia drug. 

Seven years on, Mrs Cordover still lives wondering if she could, even now, be prosecuted with assisting her husband’s suicide. 

“I have in fact had one lady publicly call for the police to investigate me with assisting a suicide,” Mrs Cordover said. 

I have in fact had one lady publicly call for the police to investigate me with assisting a suicide. - Nica Cordover

The police have enquired into Mr Cordover’s death. During the enquiry they contacted the Cordover’s general practitioner, who subsequently took the family off his books saying he would no longer see them.

“If doctors feel that they’re vulnerable in any way then they don't want a part of any of it,” Mrs Cordover said.

“If you don't have a law for voluntary euthanasia then there is no oversight; doctors feel threatened, families feel threatened, the whole thing goes under the radar and who knows what goes on.”

Mrs Cordover believes an assisted dying bill would allow people the choice to say, ‘enough’s enough’, a right she believes should be respected. 

“[Anti-euthanasia advocates] have said, ‘These people just need to be loved more, and we need to care for them more’,” Mrs Cordover said. 

“I really do take objection to that. To imply that we didn't love my husband enough and we allowed him to die because we didn't love him, I think it's quite the opposite.” 

The passing of an assisted dying bill would finally lift the threat of litigation from the shoulders of Mrs Cordover. 

Mrs Cordover said, “It would relieve me of knowing that there are people suffering appallingly.”

Bill’s story

Bill Godfrey describes his mother as someone who was full of life. Someone highly active, who defined herself by her ability to help others.

In December 2002, she for the third time attempted suicide. She was suffering from a damaged spine resulting from an attack a few years earlier, which left her in debilitating, untreatable pain.

This time she succeeded.

“Basically what then followed was that the police came in, we were both called in for interview, Stuart was charged, and our lawyer told us that because of the very vagueness of the law there was really no alternative to him pleading guilty,” Bill said.

Basically what then followed was that the police came in, we were both called in for interview, Stuart was charged - Bill Godfrey

Stuart is Bill’s brother, and he was present at the time their mother committed suicide. He was charged with assisting suicide and faced 21 years in prison.

Far from being a malicious accomplice, Stuart’s presence at the time of his mother’s death was entirely motivated by love and care.

Following her second unsuccessful attempt to take her life, Bill and Stuart Godfrey sat down to speak with their mother.

“[We] said we understood that she may well attempt suicide again, that we understood and agreed it was her right,” Bill said.

“But, because of the risk of damage we wanted to be present at any attempt in order to be able to say if it was obviously going to fail, ‘Sorry, it’s going to fail you must stop’.”

Bill and Stuart had already watched the agonising deterioration of their mother’s condition over the preceding years.

“While she was still able to get about she continued to be extremely active in all sorts of things but gradually the pain increased and increased,” Bill said.

“Pain killers worked for a while, but it eventually got to the stage where only opiates would work and it was discovered that she was violently allergic to all opiates so she couldn't use them.

“Things got worse and worse and worse to the point where my brother and I were sharing turn and turn about spending the night there to bring her things that she needed.”

Bill grew up knowing his mother, a practising Christian, believed she had the right to make her own end of life decisions. He said she was also against using scarce medical resources for an untreatable condition.

Things again reached a peak when a palliative care specialist told Bill’s mother she needed to move out of her home into care, something to which she was adamantly opposed.

“At that time palliation in her circumstances simply meant keeping her on the edge of unconsciousness until she finally died. That’s not living,” Bill said, adding he believes procedures may have changed since then.

At that time palliation in her circumstances simply meant keeping her on the edge of unconsciousness until she finally died. - Bill Godfrey

A few days later she had an acute attack of pain, beyond her chronic day to day pain, and she once again attempted to end it; and succeeded, with Stuart at her side to ensure her safety should anything go wrong.

Despite simply sitting beside his mother to make sure her attempt didn’t result in yet more damage, Stuart was charged with assisting her suicide.

“We’d had a long conversation with my mother and we’d worked through what, to the best of our understanding, would be securing her against a failure without helping her to suicide, which is a tricky little line to walk,” Bill said.

When Stuart was charged Bill was in disbelief, “at such a stupid law, frankly”.

“If there was to be a law to make it wrong to assist suicide then at minimum the law should specify what constitutes assisting, which it doesn't,” he said.

“Throughout basically we were saying to anybody who’d listen, and the police did listen, that our purpose in being present was to be able to tell her to stop if it was certain to fail at grave risk of further damage to her and they accepted that, but the law said it was assisting.”

Bill wasn’t caring for his mother that night as he was away for his birthday. But he said if he had been there, he would have done exactly the same thing.

“From my point of view, and I think also from Stuart’s, the greatest sense was relief that she had finally been able to achieve what she had wanted to do for a long time,” he said.

“Obviously there’s the loss of a mother but in a sense we’d gone through all that long before because it was progressive loss.

“The trauma was not so much associated with her death as … going through the whole process of being questioned, and giving evidence and so on. Over a very long period that is pretty traumatic and, put it this way, not kind to a family who deeply loved the woman who’d gone.”

In 2004 Stuart was given a 12 month suspended sentence by Justice Peter Underwood.

“It was interesting that the judge … made it very clear in his judgement that he was required to convict him because of the state of the law but that it was the wrong thing to do,” Bill said.

“Incidentally also, when Stuart pleaded guilty the prosecutor gave a speech which to my ears sounded like a case for the defence.

“There was nobody who really thought it should be a punishable offence, it was pretty clear that people didn't really think it was assisting under the meaning of any sensible act, but there we were.”

If the legislation that will be before the parliament next year was law in 1998, Bill believes his mother may not have made her first attempt at suicide.

“And the second attempt, which was if you like timely as she had suffered a great deal already by then, would have succeeded so the whole of the succeeding agony would not have happened,” he said.

Joan’s story

Joan Fitz-Nead has fiercely enjoyed life. But, she knows a time will come when she will decide to end it. 

“Little by little those things that allow you to enjoy life, especially if you enjoyed life, disappear.”

For years she has been seeing her body crumble around her due to spinal disintegration. It has left her in chronic, debilitating pain. 

“That is the thing that is so difficult ... you just know it’s not going to get better it’s only going to get worse,” she said. 

That is the thing that is so difficult ... you just know it’s not going to get better it’s only going to get worse. - Joan Fitz-Nead

Ms Fitz-Nead’s condition is irreversible, and there are limited treatment options. She has already undergone surgery and has two rods and six screws in her lumbar. 

“Even sitting is difficult because it’s never comfortable, and I’m not going to get into a bean bag at my age it’d be an absolutely disgusting sight,” Ms Fitz-Nead said. 

She is now simply trying to manage the pain with medication. 

 As her pain medication has increased, Ms Fitz-Nead has struggled to find medicines whose side effects don’t impact too heavily on her day-to-day quality of life. 

At 84, Ms Fitz-Nead is still full of humor, has a sharp wit and is clearly highly intelligent. In her life she has been an active community member, peace activist, nurse and in 2005 she was inducted into the Tasmanian honor roll of women. 

She will closely watch the outcome of the assisted dying bill, to be introduced into Tasmanian parliament next year. 

For her it is the difference between being empowered to go when it is right for her, in a safe and sure manner; or, to envisage some other manner, which may not be fail-safe, alone. 

Someone who has always been independent and competent, Ms Fitz-Nead is frustrated with peoples’ reaction to her decision to end her life when the time is right. 

“An awful lot of people say, ‘Joan that’s very selfish, how do you know that that’s what you want to do?’ now that is hugely insulting … to say, ‘Ddo you really know what you're doing?’,” Ms Fitz-Nead said. 

“People don’t see that I know and I am sure I will know when it is the right time to take it [her life] for me; because it is for me, it’s not for friends or rellies.”

Ms Fitz-Nead said the passing of the bill would be “bliss, absolute bliss”.

“I know the degeneration will continue, the pain will become greater, it just empowers me to say, ‘Right that’s it’, and I think the ability to make that decision because it's so personal. I’m not taking anyone else's life,” she said. 

Ms Fitz-Nead is determined she will die when she decides, regardless of the outcome in the Tasmanian parliament. 

“Absolutely, and in the near future,” she said. 

  • Lifeline Australia: 131114

READ MORE: Assisted dying, a fiercely debated issue

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