Leaning forward in her seat, 81-year-old Patricia Fellows stared down the slippery-slope and public morality arguments standing in the way of her deciding her own mode of death, and declared them bullshit.
Her target was Margaret Somerville, professor of bioethics at the University of Notre Dame, who had on Monday’s Q&A panel defended her opposition to euthanasia in response to a question from Fellows’ husband, Ron.
Ron Fellows had explained that he was 90 and had no intention of going into an aged-care facility. Instead, if there came a time that he and his wife could no longer care for themselves and each other, they would take their own lives.
That, Somerville said, was a step beyond using euthanasia for the relief of terminal, intractable suffering, which she also opposed, and showed that laws allowing medically induced death, however narrow in their original construction, would always be nudged wider.
“Your death … affects your family, it affects your community, and ultimately what we’re doing as a society is changing the law to allow this type of, putting it bluntly, killing, then it is a seismic shift in our values as a society,” she said.
Patricia Fellows offered an acerbic reply.
“It is not about killing anyone,” she said. “We will be doing it ourselves. I’m not asking Ron to kill me. I will do it myself and Ron will do it himself. I don’t know what you’re on about, darling, about killing. that is definitely the wrong word to be using.”
Somerville interjected. “It is still killing yourself.”
Fellows responded: “But it’s up to me. And it’s got nothing to do with the community, darling,” she said, drawing out the vowels to show the word was not being used as an endearment, “it’s to do with our family.”
“How you die does have to do with the community,” Sommerville said.
“Bullshit,” said Fellows.
Who knew that an elderly lady swearing on live TV would be so entertaining 🤓😂 #QandA— Mariam Veiszadeh (@MariamVeiszadeh) April 10, 2017
The Fellowses represented a growing, overlooked group of older Australians who were driven to suicide by the lack of any legal, less traumatic alternatives, the author Nikki Gemmell said.
Gemmell, one of five other panellists, wrote a book on the subject after her mother killed herself in secret to prevent any of her children being embroiled in a police investigation.
“She died a very bleak and lonely and desolate death, without any love and without her family around her, because she was trying to protect us,” Gemmell said.
Gemmell said she had since heard stories of elderly people killing themselves – or attempting to – in the most brutal and traumatic fashion because they felt they had no other option.
The communications minister Mitch Fifield, whose home state of Victoria will vote on euthanasia laws this year, said he did not support legalising euthanasia, adding that like most people his views were shaped by the deaths of his parents.
“In each case their deaths were hastened by good palliative care,” he said. “There are situations where there are legitimate care options which are presented and a byproduct of some of those can be that death comes forward … sometimes there’s a good thing when there is space in the law that allows families, that allows doctors, that allows patients to manage their situation.”
That type of palliative care response, known in common law as the doctrine of double effect, would be clarified and codified under changes to the Victorian palliative care system introduced alongside voluntary assisted dying laws, according to a report released last year.
The Labor senator Penny Wong and the British musician Billy Bragg both said they supported properly controlled voluntary euthanasia.
Wong and Bragg also found common ground on housing affordability, sparked by news that house prices in Sydney had risen almost 20% in the past 12 months.
Wong, dismissing Fifield’s objections that the housing affordability debate should focus on housing supply, land availability and residential zoning, said changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, both Labor policies vehemently opposed by the Liberals, must be included in any serious housing affordability policy.
“The government never answers: why should someone buying their seventh house have more tax incentives that someone buying their first?” Wong said.
Fifield did not answer, requesting the audience instead wait until the release of the federal budget.