Body & Fitness

Euthanasia campaigner Suzy Austen reveals why being convicted as a criminal has been ‘worth it’

'So many people are aware of the wish for a law change. So many more people are talking about what they want for themselves.'

She stood accused of helping a woman end her life, faced the indignity of being strip searched and spending a night in the cells, and is under the threat of travel restrictions, but as euthanasia campaigner Suzy Austen cuts a generous wedge of birthday cake, she is adamant it’s been worth it.

As life starts to get back to normal for the first time in more than 18 months, the Lower Hutt retiree is unwavering in her convictions, hoping for a change in law to give people the chance to determine their last days.

Even the dismay of having a criminal rap is not enough to quell the passion of the retired primary school teacher who believes her recent court case, where she was acquitted of aiding the suicide of fellow Exit International member Annemarie Treadwell but found guilty on two drug charges, served to highlight the euthanasia debate.

From her lounge room with beautiful panoramic views overlooking Wellington Harbour − the same room police secretly planted a bug to record the conversations of private gatherings in her home in 2016 − Suzy tells the Weekly personal travel restrictions are part of the cost to advance the cause.

“It’s worth it now because so many people are aware of the wish for a law change. So many more people are talking about what they want for themselves.

“When I talked to 120 people recently at Probus Club, they all were aware of what the bill was about, that there are people fighting to give them the choice if they are terminally ill and they can have the choice to end their life if they want it. This is what it’s all about,” explains Suzy.

Tucking into a slice of birthday cake made for husband Mike Harris, the campaigner still marvels at the kindness of strangers who went out of their way to show her support during the past 18 months.

Like the woman known only as Heather who slipped $10 into an envelope and hand delivered it to her home with a note apologising it couldn’t be more, but hoping it would help.

Or the letter that arrived to her on the last day of the two-week trial in February addressed to “the High Court” from someone in Lower Hutt, simply saying “I wish you well”.

Reflects Suzy, “Sometimes you believe in something but do you actually get out and do something? To go to the trouble of finding my address and put it in my letterbox. It was just so humbling and so much appreciated.”

It’s gestures like these the Wellington grandmother-of-two found inspirational as she stood in the dock facing such serious charges that, if found guilty, could have seen her spend the next 14 years behind bars.

But the 67-year-old tells the Weekly there were also two special men in her life who proved to be pillars of support during the courtroom ordeal.

“I’ve got the most wonderful husband beside me. We’ve become so much closer and I think our love for each other has grown stronger.

“Also my lovely father, who introduced me to the concept of having a choice rather than carrying on suffering. I know he was right beside me, which was so comforting. I believe he would have been proud of me.”

Her father Harold Austen was a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society and died in 1997 from pneumonia.

Tells Suzy, “He was a strong man but he was so gracious and kind to me. He died in hospital while I held his hand. I always had this naïve belief that I would have to end his life and I didn’t.”

Disappointed with her conviction on two drug charges and a $7500 fine, Suzy is already suffering the repercussions of having a record.

“Now I’m a criminal and the complications we’re having with travelling are quite immense,” she says.

“I’ve already got the document from Australia saying take this letter when you arrive in Australia, but there’s no guarantee they’ll accept me.

“South Africa’s the same but I haven’t even gotten that far yet because you are required to have an interview.”

Plans to visit family in the United Kingdom, stopping off in South Africa to attend the biennial conference of the World Federation of Right To Die societies, later this year remain in limbo.

Suzy says her turbulent 18 months started with a police checkpoint − later deemed unlawful and unjustified − near her Lower Hutt home targeting those leaving a gathering at her place. “I was arrested five days later in my car. It was a Friday night and I was put in the cells.”

She adds that as well as being stripped and searched, she was placed on suicide watch. Many of her friends were caught in the sham operation, later found to be a ploy to get the names and addresses of those attending the Exit International meeting.

Suzy and Mike would also discover police had secretly targeted their home, listening in on private conversations during chapter meetings and monitoring emails after a coroner expressed concern over people in the capital ending their lives using the euthanising drug pentobarbitone.

Many in the group were subjected to police visits, suspected to be on the verge of suicide. Recounts Suzy, “One lady had three visits and was extremely distressed. These people are all still alive now. We’re talking about two years later. It was a fallacy.”

While Suzy stepped down from key roles in pro-assisted dying groups after her arrest, she has resumed her position as Exit’s Wellington coordinator.

“However, everybody’s nervous about coming here now,” she tells. “At our meetings, we sign a confidentiality agreement so everyone can be open about their thoughts, fears and plans. They’re fearful of this place now and it’s a shame.”

But now she is looking forward to unwinding with love of her life “Jolly Mike”, a man she met wine tasting 27 years ago. She’s also only just returning to her beloved mosaics and a partially completed project she is doing for a friend.

“I do mosaicking as a passion,” tells Suzy.

After spending more than a decade nursing her mother Pat, who suffered from dementia and died of natural causes in 2014, Suzy says she will continue fighting for advanced directives, the ability to say what medical intervention, if any, is desired.

“An advanced directive speaks for you when you can’t. Doctors and family know exactly what you want. When there is no treatment left, when someone is suffering so badly and their lives are coming to an end, I believe there should be a legal choice for them to slip away more graciously with comfort and warmth.”

She’s also imploring Kiwis to talk to politicians ahead of an upcoming conscience vote in Parliament.

But for now, as the couple focus on their future, Suzy is convinced she would not do anything differently.

“It was a shock but I believe if someone had to be in that situation, I was the right person. It’s not that I was looking for it − I’m not a martyr or leading people into battle − I just think I’m normal, I’m strong.”

The End of Life Choice Bill has attracted the largest number of public submissions ever in New Zealand. More than 35,000 people and organisations have sent submissions to Parliament’s Justice Committee. Politicians are midway through hearing the 3500 citizens who asked to make their case in person.

When this process ends in September, the committee will deliberate before reporting back to Parliament in March 2019 with recommendations, ahead of the bill’s second reading and vote.

ACT leader David Seymour’s bill would allow mentally competent New Zealand adults aged 18 and over, who have a terminal illness likely to end their life within six months, or who have an irremediable and grievous medical condition, the choice to ask a doctor to help end their life at a time of their choosing.

It requires the Director-General of Health to establish a group of medical practitioners who would maintain a register of health professionals willing to participate in assisted dying.

A new process would require two medical practitioners to be satisfied a person meets the necessary criteria. The second would be independent of the patient and initial doctor. It defines a person eligible for assisted dying as someone who:

• Is aged 18 years or over

• Has New Zealand citizenship or is a permanent resident

• Suffers from a terminal illness likely to end their life within six months or has a grievous and irremediable medical condition

• Is in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability

• Experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable

• Has the ability to understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying.

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