Euthanasia campaigner cheerful but defiant

Sunday Star Times

13 April 2003


Foremost in Lesley Martin's mind when I talked to her before her postponed voluntary euthanasia charge hearing in Wanganui District Court on Wednesday was her honeymoon. She married last night, wears her scintillating ring proudly and told me she hoped the court proceedings would not upset her plans.

She didn't seem concerned about the chances of bone-headed officialdom and religious fundamentalism getting the better of her with their bizarre charge of attempted murder following her defiant publication of her book To Die Like a Dog, describing events leading up to her mother's death. What's more, she told me, she has another book coming up, to be called Voices, quoting 20 people who have now approached her with stories very like her own.

To Die Like a Dog details in play form the key conversations and events in the pathetically few months between the discovery of her mother's bowel cancer in the last days of 1998, and the day she died clutched tight in Lesley's grief-stricken arms in May 1999.

The book forced police to make an example of her. Her arrest on March 6, the same day as NZ First MP Peter Brown's conscience-vote Death with Dignity Bill bounced on to parliament's unwilling plate, helped bring voluntary euthanasia again into sharp focus.

Opponents hope defeat of the bill will reinforce the power of the legislature, the medical profession, the courts and the conservative churches to insist patients must go on suffering right up till the moment an all-knowing, all-powerful God decides they have suffered enough and lets them die.

Lesley hopes in her test case to beat this cabal. A trained intensive care nurse who interrupted counsellor training in Australia to rush back to her mother's bedside, she is challenging the establishment's disregard of the 75% of the population who approve of voluntary euthanasia.

We saw how far the official insistence on patients enduring to the bitter end has drifted from the community's wishes when Medical Association chairman John Adams was quoted as saying doctors do not support "deliberately doing harm to a patient". What of the harm they inflict when they won't do anything to grant begged-for release?

Some doctors unofficially get around the law by administering morphine, then prescribing more before it is necessary, pretending they are giving it for pain, until the patient eventually dies, but they should not have to join this hypocritical charade.

Morphine is an unsatisfactory drug anyway, with unpleasant side-effects such as catastrophic constipation. Vets wouldn't dream of using it to euthanise animals. They use nembutal (pentobarbital), as did Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to choose their own exit days.

Philip Nitschke, the Australian doctor who helped people to die before Canberra overruled the Northern Territory's humane legislation, is touring New Zealand explaining the legal ways of making a voluntary exit.

He told a meeting Lesley attended in Wellington on Monday the best thing a euthanasia volunteer could do was make friends with a vet. Just 10 grams of dog-euthanising nembutal does the trick, no worries.

Lesley's book title is a quote from her mother. Lesley recounts how the desperately tormented woman told her, eight days before her death, "I am scared of going inch by inch - it is better to die like a dog than like a human being". She had already asked her daughter to help her die: "Don't let me lie there, not alive and not dead."

Lesley agreed with me she brought the attempted murder charge on herself when she decided to publish. "My lawyer told me people often confess to the police but when charges are dropped they don't usually then go and write a book telling what they've done."

She had administered an unusually large dose of morphine when she found her mother unconscious, the day before her death, with blood trickling from her mouth. A hospice nurse setting up a morphine drip sharply reminded her unconscious people felt no pain and euthanasia was illegal, then shocked her by saying the dying woman "could go several days yet on the flesh she's carrying". The next night she found her mother's ileostomy bag full of blood. She sobbed as she held the beloved woman tightly, with a soft pillow between them, covering her nose and mouth, as the laboured breathing slowed and finally stopped. Within hours, Lesley was telling police frankly about the extra morphine and the pillow. Then she shut up, on legal advice. Police "investigated" for 10 months, finally saying her mother died from a morphine overdose complicated by broncho-pneumonia, with no evidence of suffocation.

Now, thanks to the book, they claim her actions were a failed attempt to hasten her mother's death.

Never mind the far-fetched scenarios of greedy relatives ganging up on rich uncles. voluntary euthanasia aims at no more than a gentle and easy death for as many terminally sick people as want it.