Denton's challenge a matter of life and death

WATCH NOW: See Andrew Denton's address to the Communities in Control conference now.

MEDIA identity turned assisted dying campaigner Andrew Denton says a cabal of mostly men in the Catholic Church and medical fraternities are doing their best to crush popular support for euthanasia laws.

Tasmania and South Australia recently voted down such laws, NSW is in the midst of heated debate, and 30 attempts to introduce laws in the past have failed, but Denton has his eyes firmly on the Victorian Parliament, which "by far represents the best chance" of a law passing this year.

Denton's attack on the "narrow and paternalistic group" came in an impassioned address to nearly 1000 delegates at the Communities in Control conference in Melbourne on May 30 during the Joan Kirner Social Justice Oration.

"I'm not just here out of the goodness of my heart. I'm here to enlist your support to see that these laws happen," Denton said.

"Not everybody in this room agrees with these laws ... I very much respect your right to hold that view. I disagree that you should impose that view on everybody else."

He was in no doubt about the emotions at stake.

Andrew Denton CIC 2017

Andrew Denton puts the case for assisted dying at the Communities in Control conference. Picture: Ellen Smith,

"Some of what I'm going to tell you today is very hard to listen to. Whenever I talk about it, it stirs ghosts in the room ... and I apologise if I cause further distress, but this is something we can't turn away from."

Denton said he was driven to campaign for change after witnessing his father Kit's awful and protracted death 20 years ago, contrasting this with the graceful passing of a cancer sufferer farewelled by family during an assisted death in the Netherlands.

It begged the question: "Why don't we have these laws in Australia?"

"I didn't intend to end up on this path ... but since then I've spent thousands and thousands of hours (and) travelled all around the world ... to measure up what I've been told. In the end, I came to the strong conclusion that the reason we don't have these law in Australia is for a very bad reason.

"It is because a narrow but powerful group of people, a very paternalist group of people - largely men - the heads of our religious organisations, and many of the heads of our medical organisations, who are deciding for personal beliefs that these laws are unacceptable, very much against the evidence of how these laws work overseas, strongly against the evidence of the damage being caused in our own society, and deeply against the frequently and broadly expressed wishes of the Australian population."

Denton's address and a pointed Q&A session with ABC broadcast journalist Virginia Trioli brought into sharp relief the desperation of the terminally ill, as he relayed case after case of those resorting to awful measures to end their lives.

Andrew Denton CIC 2017
Andrew Denton responds to some tough questions from ABC broadcaster Virginia Trioli. Picture: Ellen Smith,

Many of the stories appear in a book of 72 testimonies titled "The Damage Done," which was produced for lobby group Go Gentle Australia and is being issued to every politician in the country.

The book documents case after case of how terminally ill people enduring awful suffering - without access to any euthanasia laws - have resorted to suicide by nail gun, clothes line, guns, poison and car crashes.

The casualties include former executive director of the WA Cancer Council, Clive Deverall, a leader in health and palliative care, who fatally shot himself on the day of that state's election in March. In a stark message to authorities, he left a note to his wife stating: "Suicide is legal, euthanasia is not."

If those "bad deaths" weren't so invisible, they would have sparked a royal commission, Denton told the conference.

He blamed much of the resistance to dogma in the church and medical profession. He said 60% of palliative care services were provided by the Catholic Church.

"Religious leaders have been extremely good at distorting information in campaigning against assisted dying laws," he said.

"There's nothing they will do to hasten deaths ... it's against their core beliefs."

Denton said that "personal views" by those dominating the Australian Medical Authority (AMA) was behind its strong opposition to euthanasia, despite 45% of doctors surveyed saying there should be a voluntary euthanasia law. He said a neutral position would be a more reasonable stance.

Andrew Denton CIC 2017
Andrew Denton urged supporters to take action. Picture: Ellen Smith,

"A narrow group of people are imposing their beliefs on everyone else," he said.

Denton urged community leaders to pressure their MPs, or risk more people dying slowly in agony.

"Victoria by far represents the best chance, and that's why I'm here today. This is a bill that's been put forward by the government. There's been a cross-party inquiry which has been informed by an expert panel. There's been enormous thought and process put into this ... with more than 300 meetings across the medical community."

But despite "massive public support" the laws were no foregone conclusion.

"I think it's at best (got a) 50/50 chance of passing, because there's a serious flaw in the public thinking in which people think it's a 'no brainer' that this will pass."

It was up to others to stand up for the rights of the terminally ill, he said.

"There's one group of people who you never see marching in the streets, and that's the terminally ill - and that's because they're the most vulnerable."

An unapologetic Denton stressed the urgency of his talk could not be underestimated.

"I know that there are MPs from all parties here. If this law doesn't pass this year it will be a long time before this law comes again ... and in the meantime, many more will suffer ... and God forbid if this happens to you."

Want to know more about why Our Community decided to host Denton's controversial address? Our Community managing director Denis Moriarty explains here.

Anyone with personal problems can contact Lifeline on 131 114, Mensline Australia on 1300 789 978,  Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or the Victorian Statewide Suicide Helpline on 1300 651 251.

For more about the Communities in Control Conference visit: More videos and transcripts from this year's conference will be posted on the site soon, with past years' presentations still available.

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