[WHO] Peter Short, terminally ill cancer patient campaigning for physician-assisted death.
[WHAT] Dying people have the right to choose how and when their life ends.
[HOW] Mobilise community support to prompt a change in the law.
This is about you. While it is the story of a terminally ill man who has been told he will die within months, it is equally about you and your death. Today's guest in The Zone is not here because he is dying, but because of how he is living.
The Zone: Peter Short
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The Zone: Peter Short
Peter Short, advocate for physician-assisted death, talks with the Zone's Michael Short.
Husband and father Peter Short is spending a significant slice of his remaining time on this earth campaigning for legalisation of what he and so many others believe is the right of terminally ill people to choose when and how they die.
''It is wrong to be in a position where at the end of your life you are prevented by the laws of the country that you've lived in your whole life to have an exit process that you can control.
''You read the statistics around people's desire to have choice at end of life, and it seems to be that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of Australians would like to have that choice made available. You have a political system that won't talk about it, and you have the fear of death that nearly everybody has.''
On his 57th birthday in January, Peter was told the oesophageal cancer with which he had been diagnosed five years previously, and of which he thought had been cured, had returned and was terminal. He was told he would die within about nine months, and perhaps had as few as three months left.
A video statement by Peter and the full transcript of our discussion can be found at theage.com.au/federal-politics/the-zone. He will be online for an hour from midday to respond to questions and comments, which can be submitted from this morning.
Although he had believed in medically assisted death all his adult life, Peter's decision to campaign for it did not come until several weeks after his diagnosis.
Medically assisted death, also known as physician-assisted death, refers to a doctor giving a dying patient the medical means and knowledge to end their life peacefully and painlessly.
Peter was moved to act by reading in The Age about Dr Rodney Syme, who has been campaigning for the right to choose medically assisted death and who has been defying the law for years by helping terminally ill people die.
In the article, Syme, who had discussed the issue in detail in The Zone in 2011 (see link below), stated he had about 10 years ago helped a man called Steve Guest die by giving him access to Nembutal, the drug veterinarians use to euthanise suffering animals.
By making these public admissions, Dr Syme is challenging the authorities to arrest him. Although he has some apprehensions about submitting to the stresses of the court system, Syme is prepared to risk conviction, such is his belief that the law needs changing - as it has been in a number of nations.
The story particularly resonated with Peter because he has the same cancer that Steve Guest had. Guest also lived in the Victorian coastal town of Point Lonsdale, where Peter had a holiday house.
''When I read that article, it just called out to me. The ability to have choice at end of life was something that I felt compelled to get involved with.
''When you're actually sitting there having a [palliative care] plan that says eventually I am going to be managed out with morphine, which will be the end of my life, it just seems wrong.''
Spurred by what he considered Syme's courage, Peter wrote an opinion piece (see link below) in The Age, in which he stated: ''Dr Syme is taking risks as he fights for decent and enlightened change. His advocacy has inspired me …
''In the time I have left, I believe I must do what I can to fight for everybody's right to freedom of choice to control life's end process if facing a terminal illness. This is not a legal, religious, moral, budgetary or bioethical issue for me, nor do I suggest it should be for you. It is simply about common sense, and compassion for people suffering physically, psychologically and existentially.''
In that piece of writing and in our discussion for The Zone, Peter stresses that both the option of medically assisted death and of letting death come when it might are dignified. What he considers undignified is not having the choice.
''Dignity means being able to represent yourself and conduct yourself to those around you in a way you believe you should be seen and should be dealt with. I've thought deeply about this since Rodney Syme sparked me.''
Opponents to medically assisted death argue there is an unacceptable risk that terminally ill people might be depressed at the moment they are seeking choice, and thus could end up doing something inappropriate. They also argue that greedy, unscrupulous relatives might manipulate ill relatives into an early death.
Syme and other advocates say international experience shows these concerns can be readily dealt with in legislation and in practice.
Peter has set up a blog, Tic Toc Tic Toc dying to a killer clock (http://pgs28.wordpress.com), to document his experience, ventilate his campaign and facilitate community discussion.
''I received a very long email that had me in tears from a Dutch lady who has been involved with her father's death in Holland. She explained to me the process that he went through - the doctor coming to certify that he was OK and he was of the right mind to do this, and how he died. It was a peaceful, beautiful death. That is a case of a country that is managing some of these outlying things with sensible laws.''
Syme and other advocates for medically assisted death argue one of the strongest reasons to change the law is that simply giving terminally ill patients the means to end their life immediately improves their quality of life.
Peter's experience is testament to this notion. ''[Having] the choice becomes incredibly powerful. The important thing to me is that I have come to realise that having that choice takes a burden off me, which is extremely palliative in its own right.''
Like so many others who have been given the choice by doctors who, like Syme, feel morally compelled to break a law they believe causes massive undue suffering, Peter is not sure he will ultimately take the option. Doctors say a majority of people who have the option of medically assisted death do not select it.
What is important to Peter is that if and when he asks, Rodney Syme will give him the assistance he needs to end his life. He is buttressed by his confidence in, and regard for, Syme.
''He is such a generous-spirited, humane, warm, well-intentioned and super-intelligent man who has been working to try to help people through giving them choice for years and years of his life. I have got a huge respect for him.
''If I choose to have him help me, and therefore avail myself of choice … I trust him implicitly that when I choose that, he will support it.''
Peter is determined not to ebb away - semi-conscious until increasingly large doses of morphine end his time.
''I want the end to be something as special as it can be, although it is a dire and sad circumstance for all of those around me. But I also have an excitement around dying, not that I am rushing towards it. I have a belief that the body and the mind is an amazing thing.
''I can't believe that as one is going through the final movements of their life, there is not going to be chemicals running around inside your body giving you an opportunity to probably have a quite exceptional experience.
''It may be an insight, it may be your brain just opens up to a depth you never knew was possible and in milliseconds you can see hundreds of thousands of things you never believed possible. So, I am looking forward to how do I make those last moments as magical as possible, and what is my body going to be capable of doing in them.''
Peter has written to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Victorian Premier Denis Napthine seeking a meeting. He has heard nothing back from these lawmakers. ''I am disappointed at a very deep level that they have not got the respect to actually pick up a phone and talk to me.''
He does not believe, anyway, that politicians will lead change on this issue. ''I think they're uncomfortable opening the topic up because looking anyone in the eye and talking about dying and how people should die et cetera is a very confronting and emotional topic.''
He believes, too, that politicians have acute electoral antennae, so he is focusing his efforts on mobilising community support for a change to the law. As part of that, he has launched an online petition, which can be accessed through his blog.
Peter knows he will not live long enough to see the change he is seeking. So, he is imploring people to act.
''I am looking for the community to think through a really, really important issue and make a call and do the unusual, which is then actually stand up and make a whole lot of noise about it rather than thinking, 'It's a very, very busy world and, yes, I understand the campaign and hope it does well'.
''What I really want is for them to actually make a difference.''
Michael Short is Peter Short's cousin.