This is the transcript of a speech given by respected journalist Tracey Spicer this weekend at the Annual General Meeting of Dying With Dignity, Victoria.
“Like many Australians, I grew up in a family where we would talk openly about euthanasia.
We’d be sitting around the tele at 6pm watching the news and a horrible story would come on and someone would say, ‘If I end up like that, put me down like a dog’.
As we got older, the discussions became more serious.
‘Turn the machines off!’ Mum would announce, at random. ‘Or put a needle in my arm. I don’t want to live in suffering.’
It became a standing joke: ‘Yeah, Mum, I’ll kill you one day. In fact, I feel like killing you now. Just settle down!’
Everyone’s Mum is special, of course, and to me, Mum was a superwoman: fiercely intelligent, a feminist before her time, possessed of a wicked sense of humour, and a nurturing care-giver who worked as a pre-school teacher.
She was my role model and best friend.
We were the cheesy kind of family who still went on holidays together, even in adulthood.
So when Mum was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the age of 51, it tore our family apart.
I’ll never forget the moment of diagnosis.
The oncologist – a man of Chinese heritage incongruously named Boris – held up the x-ray.
“You have cancer here, here, here and here,” he said, pointing to every internal organ.
At this point, Mum’s black sense of humour kicked in.
“Well, I might as well go outside and have a smoke,” she quipped, “no point giving up now!”
She was given seven months to live.
I moved back home to Brisbane, spending three days a week working out of the Channel 10 office, and returning to Sydney on weekends to read the National News. Thus began a rollercoaster of heartache and hope.
This time was a gift. We spoke about anything and everything.
The first few months were filled with laughter: Going en masse to chemo sessions, proudly sporting hand-made scarves on our heads; gently administering the daily injections of blood thinners; cooking degustation dinners so Mum could eat whatever she fancied.
But it was not to last.
In the dead of night she would scream out in pain. The morphine pills weren’t enough.
Mum wanted to die at home; in the end she was forced into a palliative care ward. We made a roster so there was always someone there to mop her brow, hold her hand, or kiss her cheek.
And yet there was still no relief from the searing pain. I spoke to my sister.
We decided to go out onto the street to score some heroin, because we’d heard it was better than morphine. Except we were middle-class suburban 20-somethings who had no idea where ‘the street’ was.
Slowly, Mum’s faculties began to fail.
Then one day she couldn’t take herself to the toilet. I knew that this final indignity would be too much to bear. My mother was a proud woman. I could feel her shame as I carried her to the bathroom.
We had a family conference. A decision was made.
We asked Boris whether he could increase the morphine to put Mum out of her misery. It wouldn’t be the first time this had happened. Many doctors support voluntary euthanasia. It would be compassionate. Dignified.
He said no. It was against the law. “Unless you can find a nurse who’ll do it,” he said.
We asked the nurses. Everyone said no. It was too much of a risk. Not just of losing their job, but ending up in jail. It didn’t make sense to me.
Hadn’t we made this deal, this compact, this undertaking to ensure we could die peacefully, in the presence of loved ones? We could not see why the law would prevent us from doing this.
So I started doing some reading. Sitting on the couch next to Mum’s bed, on those long and harrowing nights, I read as much about euthanasia as I could.
And I got angry.
All this rubbish, these excuses, about “What if someone knocks off their parents to get the money” or “It’s against the law of God”. To me, they’re not robust arguments.
What kind of God wants his people to suffer in agonising pain?
Some 85 percent of Australians want right-to-die legislation – specifically, Physician Assisted Dying. Contrary to popular belief, such laws have not been abused in the jurisdictions in which they are used: Oregon, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The appropriate safeguards are in place.
After reading all of this material, I made my decision.
Mum had been unconscious for a week. We were unable to communicate with her any longer.
“This is no way to live,” I thought. I’d just read a story about a woman who suffocated her mother with a pillow. She said it was the best gift she had ever given.
And so, I walked slowly over to Mum’s bed, with a pillow in my hand.
But I couldn’t do it.
How could I rob Dad of those last moments, stroking the back of her hand?
How could I take the life of the woman who had given me life?
And would this simple act send me to jail?
I went home at 6 o’clock that morning to get some sleep. A couple of hours later, Dad woke me to say that Mum had gone.
That was 12 years ago.
About eight years later, I read a story in the newspaper about euthanasia. And I thought, “This is ridiculous. Why are we still having this discussion?”
I wrote an opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph. I had no idea about the impact that article would have. Hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls came flooding in. The stories were heartbreaking.
Many expressed the guilt that I feel to this day: that I didn’t have the courage to put Mum out of her misery.
After the publication of that article, my sister told me something she had never told me before.
“I tried too,” she said simply, on the phone.
“A couple of nights before you tried with the pillow, I pressed Mum’s morphine button so many times my thumb went red. But I kept pressing,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell you.”
These are the desperate things ordinary Australians are doing every day of the week, because our lawmakers do not have the courage of their convictions to address what is a basic human right.
With an ageing population there will be more stories of cruelty to our fellow man, and families riven by heartbreak.
And so from the bottom of my heart – the heart of a still-grieving daughter – one of many children, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who are faced with this invidious choice – I thank you, Dying with Dignity, for your life-changing work.
I hope to live to see the day when we have laws in this country which treat human beings with the same compassion we seem to reserve for animals.”
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* Respected newsreader, journalist and mum Tracey Spicer is probably the most versatile media personality in the country. The 43-year-old works as a 2ue broadcaster, News Ltd columnist, Sky News anchor, and travel writer for Holidays with Kids magazine. She is also a highly sought-after keynote speaker, MC, and media trainer, running her successful company Spicer Communications. But Tracey’s favourite job is bringing up two beautiful children, six-year-old Taj and five-year-old Grace.