Liz Jacka is a Board Member in Dying With Dignity NSW. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you, e.g., geography, culture, language, religion or lack thereof, education, and family structure and dynamics?
Liz Jacka: I was born in Auckland New Zealand in 1945. I am of Celtic origin (Scottish, Irish, Cornish) and had a pretty strict Catholic upbringing and education. The family didn’t have much money. There were four kids, of whom I am the eldest.
My parents’ marriage was very problematic and my relationship with my father was pretty toxic. (I forgave him when I was in my forties after undergoing psychoanalysis. He also apologised although he had not had analysis.)
I was educated to PhD level, having studied both science and humanities. I spent my life as an academic, first in Philosophy, then in media studies. We never talked about anything difficult in the family so I had no idea about death etc.
Jacobsen: What levels of formal education have been part of life for you? How have you informally self-educated?
Jacka: See above for academic details. I have self-educated in end-of-life issues. After I became very interested in the issue of voluntary assisted dying (VAD) about 6 years ago, I have read all of the international debates and reports about the issue and have watched very closely developments in various parts of the world. I have also read many of the recent books on the subject.
Jacobsen: As a Board member, a longstanding one, in Dying With Dignity in Australia, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?
Jacka: My involvement began when I provided research support to NSW Upper House Greens MP, Cata Faehrmann who in 2013 introduced a VAD Bill into the Upper House of the NSW Parliament. It was defeated by 23 to 12. I am a member of the Greens Party and VAD is party policy.
I joined the Board of Dying With Dignity NSW in 2014 and have done various things over the period until now. I have written submissions to inquiries, I have participated in campaigns around actual bills (another attempt was made in 2017 to pass a bill in NSW, which failed by only one vote).
I do a lot of menial clerical stuff and I take all the phone calls that come into the office. This has been a big and quite taxing part of my job as we are often approached by desperate people and their relatives and asked for hep to die. So I have become a kind of phone counsellor.
I also contribute to a weekly media watch of all Australian stories about the issue and I have helped to organise forums on the issue and I have spoken to various audiences about the issue. I have also written articles and letters to newspapers and magazines.
Jacobsen: What have been the developments of the organization since your time in it?
Jacka: Our organisation has gone through big changes since I’ve been on the Board. This is due to the election of two extremely dynamic and switched-on board members who have expertise in digital campaigning techniques.
They both work almost full time on the issue and they are both very active in the Voluntary Euthanasia Party which has fielded candidates in both Federal and Sate elections.
Jacobsen: In terms of moving further into 2019, what are the important activist efforts of dying with dignity in Australia in general? Who are the important allies in this collective effort to advance, if wanted, personal autonomy in the choice of how and when one dies?
Jacka: The 2017 Bill was introduced into parliament by a cross-party group, which gave it a much better chance of succeeding. A similar Bill will be introduced again in 2019. There is also a state election in March 2019. All our efforts will go into campaigning hard for our cause.
Our allies and a doctors group who are in favour of VAD, The Nurses Professional Associations (the nurses officially support VAD), to some extent the Associations who represent senior Australians.
We have yet to have much success with the Palliative Care profession. Here, as elsewhere, they see VAD in opposition to VAD whereas we would see them as complementary.
Jacobsen: Who are the important writers and thinkers of this national and global rights-based movement?
Jacka: One of the Australian campaigners is Dr Rodney Syme of Victoris, who has been helping people with end of life decisions for many years. he has written two excellent book (google him).
He has also gone on national TV and confessed to actually assisting terminally ill people to die at the time of their choosing (which is illegal) but has never been charged with any crime.
Other doctors have written books on the futility of intensive care and heroic measures for the frail and elderly. Awareness to the issues amongst the general population is growing with around 85% saying they would approve of VAD for terminally ill people who are suffering intolerably.
Jacobsen: In terms of the real successes and honest failures in the efforts for dying with dignity, the right to die, euthanasia, and so on, what have those been in the history of Australia’s branch of this movement?
How can others interested in becoming politically and socially active build on those successes and learn from those failures?
Jacka: This is a huge question. I think the chipping away approach over the years in Australia is bearing fruit. All states and territories are considering introducing VAD. In fact, Victoria passed a VAD law in 2017 and this comes into effect in June 2019.
Western Australia has issued a parliamentary report urging the introduction of VAD laws and Queensland is also seriously considering it. Note that in all three of these states there is a Labour government.
Jacobsen: Historically speaking, who have been the primary opposition to the dying with dignity movement? Why them? How can this opposition be combatted?
Jacka: The primary opposition to VAD are the Catholic and Anglican Churches. They have managed to spook politicians and there is a huge reluctance on the part of the conservative parties (the Liberal and National parties).
The extreme religious right has a solid grip on the Liberal Party, which makes it very difficult t get Liberals to vote for VAD because they are afraid of not being pre-selected.
The other strong opposition comes form official doctors group, The Australian Medical Association, although when doctors are surveyed individually there is a slight majority in favour.
As outlined above, the palliative care profession is officially against it, though we get Emails from many palliative care nurses who are in favour, based on their close acquaintance with the pointy end of the dying process.
Jacobsen: How can people become involved through the donation of time, the addition of membership, links to professional and personal networks, giving monetarily, exposure in interviews or writing articles, and so on?
Jacka: Any amount to things to do: we particularly need people who are prepared to front politicians and demand that they hear the arguments. We need people who will help us to monitor and respond on our facebook page, we need people to letterbox, and come to demonstrations.
We need people with design and internet skills. All members of the current board (10 in all) do all the work on a voluntary basis.
We do not seem to have been successful in getting a permanent group of extra volunteers, but when the Bill was being debated in parliament in 2017 a large number of our members fronted up outside Parliament House wearing t-shirts and waving banners.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the conversation today?
Jacka: I think in 10 years’ time, maybe less, all of Australia will have VAD. There is a greater recognition of the problem that modern medicine can cure anything except frailty and the wonders of modern medicine are keeping people alive far beyond their desire to keep living and their capacity to lead a life that is meaningful to them.
Of course, even worse off than terminally ill people (at least they will die within a foreseeable time frame), are those with incurable degenerative diseases such as MS, MND, Parkinson’s and severe stroke who may be forced to live for years in a situation where they have no dignity, no autonomy and little capacity to take pleasure from their life.
I personally would like to see VAD extended to these groups. I am not presently in favour of including those with mental illnesses or dementia, even though their suffering must be terrible. That is at present in the too-hard basket.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Liz.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.