The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York seem like an odd place to start talking about Australia’s voluntary assisted dying (VAD) laws, but they do reveal the power of language when discussing death.
“Within an hour of the first plane hitting, people begin to jump,” Andrew Denton says. None of the deaths was classified as suicides, but homicides. Denton continues, quoting the New York chief medical examiner: “These desperate people were forced from the buildings.”
The word suicide – which carries “such dark freight” – is weaponised by opponents of VAD to cast doubt on laws that would allow people to choose their own death. Denton asks: “If it were you facing the flames, would you like the choice between the fire and the fall?”
In the first season of Andrew Denton’s Better Off Dead podcast, the TV presenter and personality spent 18 months talking to doctors, nurses, politicians, ethicists, priests, lawyers, opponents of VAD, and the families of the dying, in Australia and around the world, detailing the arguments for and against assisted dying. What he saw and heard left him in no doubt that assisted dying laws were necessary.
Better Off Dead has now returned for a second season, this time exploring the first year of operation of – and continued opposition to – Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying laws. This season highlights the advocacy and passion of the former television presenter, who tells Guardian Australia’s Full Story that talking about death has become a seven-day-a-week job.
“It’s become all-consuming in a way I’d never intended, and I think my family would like me to be less consumed,” Denton says.
It’s a job that has no clock-off time either. “I remain stunned at how so many people have something to say. I was at my local cafe,” he says, pausing to hold up some paper from his desk, “and I got a five-page letter handed to me from a guy in New South Wales about what happened to his mum, saying: please, can we talk about it? That happens quite a lot.”
I have seen the power of the lobby that argues against this ... so I think it’s a very, very tough fight
The belief of the terminally ill – and their families – that there was a better way to die convinced Denton more needed to be done. Following the launch of season one, he went on to found an expert advisory and health promotion charity, Go Gentle Australia, to argue on behalf of the vulnerable who wanted to access life-ending medication.
“Over the last five years, I’ve sat in parliaments with people who are dying,” he says. “I have seen people spend the last weeks of their lives arguing publicly for these laws – their last precious hours – and that is so powerful.”
Victoria became the first state in Australia to allow VAD in June 2019, under strict conditions. In the first year, 124 Victorians received assistance to die.
Western Australia has also passed laws that will be in operation by July this year, as has Tasmania, which will come into operation next year. Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales are all likely to vote on VAD legislation in the next 12 months.
Despite what appears to be the march of humanity towards merciful death, Denton is not comfortable yet.
“I don’t think this is inevitable, even though the arc of history certainly is only heading one way. I mean, for God’s sakes, Spain, which is one of most Catholic countries in the world, just passed this law.
“I have seen the power of the lobby that argues against this, I’ve seen how their arguments lodge in politicians minds. So I think it’s a very, very tough fight. And I don’t take anything for granted.”
Denton palpably fears that the rug could be pulled back at any time, should the arguments of VAD opponents win over politicians. In the podcast, Denton contrasts the words of the Catholic church and Catholic bishops, who remain staunchly opposed to VAD, with the stories of families who have been helped or could have been helped by assisted dying.
Take the Caliste family, whose 34-year-old son Robbie – suffering from motor neurone disease – accesses life-ending medication. After hearing from Robbie’s parents in episode 1 about his peaceful death, Denton brings us back to the statement of the five Catholic bishops of Melbourne who describe Robbie’s choice, and the other 123 terminally ill people who had ended their lives, as “assisted suicide”.
Recalling that moment to the Full Story team, Denton’s voice shakes with anger.
“I feel very emotional about it. Because the thing that upsets me deeply is church leaders … they come out and they say things like, ‘We don’t believe in this law because people deserve to be loved to the beginning or the end of their lives’ or … ‘assisted dying is the equivalent of bumping off an animal’.”
“And I think: who are you people? Where is your heart? The Caliste family and all the people I spoke to, they could not have loved the person who they were supporting in this choice more. Who are you to make that judgment?”
The general public tends to agree: support for the laws currently sit at around 80%. The target for this season of his podcast, Denton says, is the political class.
“I really hope the politicians who will be debating this in the months ahead listen, because ... I want to get them understanding. I want them to understand who needs this law, and why.”
• Better Off Dead season two is released from Tuesday 13 April on the Wheeler Centre website. Episodes will be released twice weekly until the end of May