Euthanasia debate rages on 21 years after country’s first assisted dying case

Updated October 20, 2017 11:20:12

It’s 21 years since I was woken from a deep sleep by a call from work: “You have to come in … somebody’s used it.”

That’s how history works, it doesn’t always unfold in business hours.

I was the Northern Territory political reporter for the ABC and my colleague Lorraine Davies needed me immediately.

Bob Dent, 66, had become the first person to use the Northern Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act.

I’ve been thinking about that moment while the Victorian Parliament debated into the night on its own bill.

It’s a story that consumed my life for years, and to my surprise led almost back to my own front door.

Bob Dent, you see, lived over my back fence.

I didn’t know him, but did meet his wife Judy several times later.

So much of that time is etched into my mind, including the run up the back stairs to the Northern Territory Parliament’s press gallery to file the story the bill had passed about 3:30 in the morning.

The law was the idea of then-Northern Territory chief minister Marshall Perron, a deeply conservative man with a radical idea.

He was a consummate politician and I doubt anyone else could have pulled it off.

And he forged an unusual alliance with the decidedly activist Dr Philip Nitschke who continues to pursue the case.

At the time many wondered if anyone would be able to use it because the rules were so strict.

In the end it was a Melbourne paper that broke the story … I think they had a mate in the chief minister’s office.

In reality, no-one may ever have found out, but Bob Dent wanted to be cremated and not buried, and there was a problem with the Cemeteries Act.

His wife needed to ask the coroner, and from there, via the Melbourne paper, the news filtered out.

‘Ham sandwiches and a death machine’

The law was erased by the Federal Parliament in 1997, after then-backbencher Kevin Andrews’ private members bill banning the territories from legislating on euthanasia passed both houses.

But the law was in place long enough for four people to use it.

Not much is known about two of them, but I did meet a woman called Janet Mills who used the law to end her own life in 1997.

She was only 52, but had suffered a rare and debilitating disease for many years.

Despite her frailty, she held a press conference at Judy Dent’s house, she was so determined to promote the law.

I’ve never felt comfortable about that — seeing someone so sick surrounded by a hungry media pack.

But it also brought out the best in us like Gay Alcorn, then from The Age, who was based in Darwin.

I still remember her story about the day Bob Dent died.

The dying man, she reported, shared a ham sandwich and a bottle of stout with his wife and Dr Nitschke, before he pushed the buttons on the so-called death machine.

When the law was scuttled by the Kevin Andrews’ bill I came to believe there would never be legal voluntary euthanasia in Australia unless one of the states took it on.

There have been many attempts, and it remains to be seen whether the Victorian result will be any different.

Topics: euthanasia, community-and-society, darwin-0800, nt, australia, melbourne-3000, vic, canberra-2600, act

First posted October 20, 2017 11:15:57