Judith Hoy does not like the word “euthanasia”.
Despite being a committee member of Dying with Dignity Victoria, and even though the word stems from the Greek phrase for “a good death”, the 73-year-old believes it conjures in many people’s minds the image of someone being involuntarily killed or – worse yet – the Holocaust.
The Melbourne woman, 73, visited Bendigo on Tuesday at the request of a cancer support group, explaining to them the model of chosen death for which her group advocates: voluntary assisted dying.
Legal in the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US state of Oregon, VAD allows people experiencing intolerable suffering to choose the time of their own death – only after they’ve sought assessment from two independent medics.
Dying, she said, was something “not always easy to talk about at a barbecue or over the back fence”, but something she was accustomed to discussing after a career in the public health sector.
Over that time, she worked on health issues some might have considered contentious: sexuality, disability and blood-borne viruses, including HIV/AIDS.
At the peak of the AIDS crisis, it was not unusual for people dying of the condition to take their own lives, Ms Hoy said.
“That happened subterraneously, below the radar, enclosed by the shared understanding and confidentiality that was part of the HIV/AIDS world.”
Two decades later, choosing death remained a topic tainted by taboo, and it was the political influence religious organisations held over elected representatives that meant voluntary euthanasia remained illegal, Ms Hoy said.
But there was reason for optimism among those who supported assisted dying, Ms Hoy said.
The Victorian parliament’s legal and social issues committee delivered a report in June recommending the government introduce legislation to “allow adults with decision making capacity, suffering from a serious and incurable condition who are at the end of life to be provided assistance to die in certain circumstances”.
The government has until December to respond to the recommendation.
The state’s health minister, Jill Hennessy, has also announced changes to advance care directives, making it compulsory for heath workers to abide by people’s wishes for end-of-life care.
The minister, whose mother has lived with multiple sclerosis for four decades, was the first member of her cabinet to voice support for assisted dying.
Ms Hoy said progress was unsurprising in an era when individual choice was so highly valued.
“We provide young people with education that is in large part about thinking for themselves,” she said.
“We don’t tell them what profession to go into, we don’t tell them who to marry or not to marry,” she said, and wondered why death was any different.
Asked about the possibility someone capable of recovery, especially someone with a mental illness, might access assisted dying services, Ms Hoy said involving two physicians in the process mitigated that risk.
This, she said, was the distinction between DWDV’s preferred mode of chosen death and that of Exit International, the organisation headed by the field’s preeminent advocate, Dr Philip Nitschke.
The well-known figurehead will today open a Melbourne conference on the issue, advocating for all “rational” people to choose when their life ends.
Ms Hoy also said the oft-used argument that doctors were bound by a Hippocratic oath to sustain life was also misguided, adding it was in fact a doctor’s duty to alleviate their patients’ suffering.
Still, it was something she hoped few people had to use, much like abortion.
"We just hope for it to be safe and private and effective when it is needed,” she said.
[Dying is] not always easy to talk about at a barbecue or over the back fence.