Eight weeks before she died, Queensland woman Anne McCuaig pleaded with her daughter, Julia, to help end her life.
Terminal cancer had spread to Anne’s bones, making them so weak they began to break, with no prospect of ever healing. First her collarbone snapped, then her leg. The pain medication left her unable to focus, but still the pain increased.
Julia recalls the day in 2014 when her mother grabbed a box of tissues and asked for help to take an overdose of medication. Anne said to her: “You’re going to need these. Don’t cry. We have to be strong, but I can’t take this any more.”
Later this month, Queensland’s parliament will hold a conscience vote on legislation that would allow for voluntary assisted dying (VAD), with safeguards.
The final weeks of debate are certain to be fraught in the once-conservative state, where there is overwhelming public support for voluntary euthanasia. Rallies are planned, and some religious leaders have begun an almighty opposition campaign.
Julia McCuaig says her mother’s situation is precisely why laws are needed.
“Try to imagine only being able to lie flat on your back [with broken] bones that are so full of cancer they will never heal,” she says.
“She pleaded with me and said she could write a note, but I still said no. I felt like the worst human being.
“It’s terrifying to have to watch that. I know the biggest concern that my mum had was that she would lose her dignity and lose control, which she did. Even if she didn’t end up accessing voluntary assisted dying, I think just knowing that it was an option, that peace of mind, would have made things a bit easier for her.”
Church hierarchy at odds with parishioners
Under the Queensland proposal, voluntary assisted dying would be restricted to people with an advanced and progressive condition that causes intolerable suffering and is expected to cause death within a year.
The person must have decision-making capacity and would have to be separately and independently assessed by two doctors. They would then be required to make three separate requests, over at least nine days.
Lindy Willmott, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology and one of the country’s leading experts on end-of-life law, says the proposal is “a safe and measured bill” that balances individual rights, safeguards and provision for conscientious objection.
Opposition is mostly being led by churches and other religious groups. In a letter to parishioners this week, the Catholic archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, claimed the laws would “if passed, overturn foundational principles that have underpinned our medical and legal systems for centuries”.
“We need to do all we can to protect Queenslanders rather than assist them in dying,” Coleridge said.
Last week a group of prominent medical professionals voiced their opposition. So have some Queensland MPs.
Mark Robinson, a Liberal National MP and Pentecostal pastor, wrote a dissenting report when the state health committee recommended the draft legislation to parliament.
“If the best we can hope to offer terminally ill Queenslanders suffering intolerable pain is a poison, instead of the highest standard of palliative care, we are in serious trouble as a society,” Robinson wrote.
“For many … human life is sacred.”
It is remarkable to note how these prominent voices have fallen so dramatically out of step with the views of their parishioners, patients and voters.
Polling conducted last year shows that most churchgoers – of all denominations – overwhelmingly support VAD. ABC Vote Compass data suggests there is 79% support among Catholics in the Townsville diocese. The same survey showed more than 80% support in Robinson’s Bible-belt electorate of Oodgeroo.
Everald Compton, a Uniting Church elder and a seniors’ advocate, says church leaders “have lost contact with the people who sit in the pews”.
“Part of the whole church opposition is this culture that’s been around for a thousand years that you’ve got to frighten people to become Christians,” Compton says.
“They want to cling to this idea that fear of God is going to make you come to church, you’ve got to keep in good with God. But it’s not working anymore.”
Compton, who turned 90 last year, has been campaigning for voluntary assisted dying since the 1980s.
“When I started this, it was back in the Joh [Bjelke-Petersen] era and there was very rigid opposition,” he says. “Gradually it’s come into acceptance that we’re a compassionate society. That’s the only society you want to live in.
“People might say … the Grim Reaper already has an appointment with me. I’ve lived an interesting live, a fulfilling life, and I’m not going to die lying on a bed.
“I’m not going to put my family through that, and I don’t think many Christians would want that.”
Political minefield for the LNP
For the past three years, most Liberal National party MPs in Queensland, regardless of their views, have been deeply nervous about the prospect of a debate on euthanasia.
The issue wedges them between constituents who want VAD (the Vote Compass found more than 70% support in every state electorate) and their preselectors, the grassroots party members, who mostly do not.
The party’s new leadership – the parliamentary leader, David Crisafulli, and the president, Lawrence Springborg – appear to have taken steps to avoid the shambles that occurred last time the LNP allowed a conscience vote, when MPs who supported the decriminalisation of abortion were publicly threatened with disendorsement.
While many Labor MPs have declared their hand in favour, supporters of VAD on the conservative side of politics are unlikely to go public until they speak in the parliamentary chamber, such is the expected deluge from pro-life party members and lobby groups.
David Muir, the chair of the Clem Jones Trust, has led the VAD campaign’s engagement efforts with MPs.
“It saddens me to think [that LNP MPs] can’t go public now because of their positions. Many of them have done local surveys, and they’ve told me they’re getting up to 90% in favour,” Muir says.
“The numbers indicate that it will probably pass parliament, but we want the vote to mirror the wishes of Queensland.
“If the MPs give a true reflection of the wishes of Queenslanders, we’re talking about 80%. We’re aiming to get at least 60 votes and our goal is to have the bill intact.”
Muir said the issue could be damaging for the LNP if – as happened with the abortion decriminalisation debate – only a few vote in favour, and the debate splits largely along party lines.
The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, made a surprise commitment during the state election campaign to bring forward the vote. In the wash-up, Labor made gains in areas with older populations, and campaigners believe VAD played a part in converting that support.
In Bundaberg, where Labor won by nine votes, Muir says he spoke to lifelong LNP supporters – more than enough to make up the difference – who switched allegiances over VAD.
“We’re imploring [MPs] to not put their own opinions ahead of their constituents,” Muir says.
“This is an opportunity for every MP to define their character and who they are on behalf of their electorate. This is a rare chance for every MP to define themselves in a legacy way on something which 80% of Queenslanders support.”
McCuaig says the manner of her mother’s death made the grieving process immeasurably worse.
“My mother lived for four months [after her diagnosis], and thankfully she died when she did,” McCuaig says.
“We knew things weren’t going to be easy, but we had no idea the extent of the heartache and suffering that was to come.
“The night she died, I didn’t even cry. I was so relieved it was over for her.”
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org