Saturday, April 17, 2010

Assisted Suicide

While I normally blog about software development, today I'm going to blog about something much more personal, something that most of my friends probably don't know. The trigger is the debate on the right to assisted suicide in the UK and on the right to access even information about assisted suicide in Australia, which would be blocked by the proposed internet filter. While I won't be as articulate as Sir Terry Pratchett I want to present my personal experience.

I was in my mid-20s when my partner's mother, still in her 40s, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though she lived in Cairns, a rural centre, she received excellent care, including flights on the air ambulance to city hospitals when she needed them. That experience, and my own health issues growing up, cemented for me the importance of free national health care, but my brush with assisted suicide came towards the unfortunate end of the story.

Despite a radical masectomy and many other treatments the cancer spread to Margaret's bones, and eventually she deteroriated quite rapidly. One day we got a call that if we wanted to see Margaret alive we needed to come to Cairns, right away. My partner was in Melbourne, I was in Sydney, one of my partner's siblings was on a prawn trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but we all dropped what we were doing and went to the airport. I remember walking out of the office, telling my boss that I was leaving right away and I didn't know when I would be back, and him simply replying "Ok, do what you need to do" (thanks for that Brian).

We all arrived in Cairns and started a vigil by Margaret's bedside. She was immobile - her bones were so weak and brittle that the nurses needed to be careful not to break them when they changed the bed - she had difficulty breathing, and she was very weak, but she lingered. She was pleased to see all her children, but it was obvious that she was unhappy and she was not going to get better. One morning she told us, in short breaths, that it was impossible to hold your breath until you died - she'd tried it the night before and it didn't work.

Margaret had been estranged from her husband before the cancer got very bad, but they had moved back in together to look after her and their youngest child, who was about 12. He was pretty rung out and wasn't really part of the decision-making around Margaret at the time. He was a diagnosed manic-depressive and we were concerned that he might commit suicide after Margaret died, so we talked about how to handle the care of the youngest child in those circumstances. We also needed to talk to Margaret about formalising her will (if you haven't, please do that now, as handling it on your deathbed is no fun for anyone). As the older partner of the oldest child, some of the responsibility for these things rested with me. Eventually the conversation also came around to Margaret's death. It was clear that she was ready to die, from both her actions and her words, and we could see that she might ask one of us to help her. What would we do? What would I do?

I don't know what everyone else thought. I think we talked about it without making any final decision as a family, but I also know that I made a decision in my own mind. If Margaret asked me to help end her life I would do whatever I could to help. I would do it with tears in my eyes (like the ones I have in my eyes now, writing about this more than 20 years later), but I would do it nonetheless. And it would be illegal, and I would bear the consequences - the legality or otherwise of the action made no difference to the decision and the act, though it might have made a considerable difference to my life.

Margaret peacefully and quietly passed away one night in her sleep, with her eldest daughter at her bedside.

Assisted suicide isn't a theoretical issue for me, it's a hard, practical one that I faced head-on, and having made that decision once I know that if the circumstances arose again I would make the same decision. I believe that as a caring and compassionate society we should be able to extend the right to die with dignity at the time (and if possible the place) of our own choosing to everyone. I believe that the benefits of providing that right outweighs the cost and effort of monitoring to make sure that the right is not abused.


  1. This left me wiping away a tear as I sat at my desk reading it. Thanks for sharing your story Steve. It's courageous of you to do so.

  2. Thanks Steve for sharing this. I watched my father die of cancer over several months in 1992 and I know there is no dignity in a long and painful decay and death. If I face the same sort of fate then I know that I would want the choice. You made a brave and selfless decision, I just wish it didn't come with such nasty consequences if put in action.