The Myth of Bad Deaths

An Article by the
Chief Executive Officer
of Right to Life NSW

27 July 2021

One afternoon in 2017 I was driving my 15 year old daughter somewhere and telling her about my new role working for Dr Daniel Mulino then MLC in Victoria fighting the euthanasia bill.  She turned and said to me – “but Dad, isn’t it an act of compassion to help people end their suffering?”.  It was an instinctive response, and from a thoughtful child who goes to church each week in a Christian family.  She doesn’t think that way now, but it strikes me how difficult is our challenge in contesting euthanasia when people think that there are these legions of people slowly dying in agonising suffering.

This is where I think I have failed in my campaigning around the country against euthanasia so far.  I have not been able to dispel the myth that there are thousands of people out their wreathing in their beds in excruciating pain.  After the WA debate was over, Margaret Quirk MP, a strong pro-life supporter, gave me her wash up of the campaign.  She said, “Brendan we just weren’t successful in debunking the myth about common very painful, and hence bad, deaths”.

And this is a myth we must bust.  Because the truth is that you would not find a palliative care specialist in the country that would accept that his/her patients are in any real physical pain.  The opioids are effective in 98.5% of cases, interestingly the 1.5% tend to be persons with very high use of illicit drugs earlier in life.  Even for this cohort medical professionals still have strong medical options to eliminate pain.  Palliative sedation is a moral option at the end of life where the doctor just keeps you asleep until the terminal illness kills you naturally.  

The only time when people are in extreme physical pain at the ends of their lives is if the palliative care is not adequately funded or distributed in regional and remote arrears.  This is a big problem in regional WA and Queensland.

But we face two challenges in debunking the pain myth.  The first is that when sons, daughters, wives, husbands see the health and vitality of their loved ones ebb away, and see how dying strikes down the person they have loved all their lives, these family members experience extraordinary emotional pain which changes them as people.  What we are really doing with assisted suicide laws is euthanising the pain of the family members seeing their loved ones die. 

The second problem is that the issue has become, like abortion, a talisman of the political left.  They insist on personal rights of the individual over their own bodies to the extent they are prepared to demand that the state has an obligation to kill them at taxpayer expense at their request at the end of life, or as we shall likely soon see, whenever they ask for suicide.  It is strange that the left take such an individualistic position and fail to recognise that our lives are connected and the death of one person affects us all.

We have to find a way to let our vision of a good death stand in full radiance in the public imagination.  My dad died of a very slow cancer when I was 20.  I visited him every day for two years and watched him slowly waste away.  I asked him “Dad, are you ever in pain?”  He said, “No, Brendan, but there is suffering without pain”.  True but his suffering, while not insignificant, was never for him intolerable because he wanted to celebrate every last second of his life.  He, and we his family, found meaning in his suffering by the way he endured it with humility and hope.  He gave his dying life very great dignity by placing such a great value on each second: he celebrated the great mystery of life.

Right to Life NSW which I represent is not a religious organisation and religious arguments will not prevail in the political debate.  But what we can do, what we must do, is ensure the truth is spoken that there is no need to allow doctors to kill their patients.  All we need to stop bad deaths is fully fund palliative care, provide options for other treatments that allow for a natural death.  And we should encourage each other to find fulfilment in every second of our lives, even the last seconds, as in the passionate poetic muse – Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Yours in Defence of Life from birth to its natural end.

Chief Executive Officer
Right to Life