"utterly inspiring, genuine and informative.""It is a very long time since I have experienced such a satisfying conference, one in which I did not wish to miss a single session.""The speakers, topics and especially the hardworking conference staff made the Symposium an experience I will remember for a long time.""This was an excellent opportunity for Australians to meet leaders from around the world who are working to oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide and learn what is really happening.""The personal testimonies of those who have experienced either the voluntary or involuntary euthanasia of a loved one was a powerful witness to the hurt and injustice being practiced."(These are some of the comments provided by participants in the HOPE post-symposium survey.)In 2011, in Toronto, I promised Alex Schadenberg that HOPE Australia would host an International Symposium. It has taken nearly four years to fulfil that promise!The May 22nd and 23rd Symposium brought together speakers and participants from across the globe for a packed program over one and a half Autumn Adelaide days. Under the theme of 'Standing Strong, together' we explored the data, the personal stories, recent developments overseas and heard a clear message about the absolute necessity of co-operation across the spectrum of opposition.The full Saturday program was preceded by two concurrent afternoon sessions on the Friday where leaders and medical personnel met separately to consider their roles in these debates.Professor Theo Boer from The Netherlands opened the Saturday program via video recording. Professor Boer was not only once a supporter of the Dutch legislation, from 2005, he was also a member of the Dutch Euthanasia Evaluation Commissions that review the cases of euthanasia on behalf of the government. As he reported, he became increasingly disturbed at what he was seeing.Boer's comments echo precisely the story told through the anecdotes and the data, encapsulating the concerns and reasons for the #HOPE2015 event, worth quoting here extensively:
"First, as of 2007, the number of assisted deaths has increased by 15% annually, year after year. Whereas the numbers in 2003 were well under 2,000, the figures are well above the 5,000 line in 2014. One out of 25 people in the Netherlands now dies with the assistance of a doctor. My conclusion is that once assisted dying becomes available, the level of palliative care doesn't matter that much. What was once considered a last resort, now becomes a 'default' mode of dying for an increasing number of people."
"Whereas in the first years hardly any patients with psychiatric illnesses or dementia appear in reports, these numbers are now sharply on the rise. Cases have been reported in which a large part of the suffering consisted in age related complaints. Loneliness occurs in 50 out of the last 500 cases that I reviewed before stepping back. Many of these patients could have lived for months, others for years or even decades. We have seen a number of ground breaking cases: 'euthanasia for two', for example couples in which the caregiver gets cancer and his partner chooses to die the same day and the same way; euthanasia in blindness; euthanasia for a man with autism who fears retirement; assisted dying for a mother of two suffering from tinnitus."
"In 2012, under the name 'End of Life Clinic,' a nationwide network of travelling euthanasia teams became active. On average, these doctors see a patient three times before administering the lethal drugs. There is no patient-doctor relationship prior to a request. More than forty teams have been formed, and hundreds of cases are done each year. Whereas other doctors have an array of palliative care at their disposal, doctors of the End of Life Clinic have only two options: to administer life-ending drugs or to send the patient home empty handed. And whereas an average doctor will provide assisted dying perhaps once in one or two years, some of these doctors report two-digit numbers each year."
"For years I supported the Dutch law on assisted dying. But as we speak, I have more concerns now than ever before. I am worried that the liberty of some may lead to a loss of freedom of others. I am worried that more and more elderly people will consider themselves too big a burden. And I fear the moment at which a future government will rule that children should contribute financially to the health care of their parents. My concerns are shared by many, even of those who see no intrinsic objections to assisted dying. The Netherlands has considered itself a guiding country when it comes to assisted dying. A professional guide will not lead his clients down a road that he knows to be risky. For now, I therefore recommend countries that are considering to legalize assisted dying, to wait and see where the Netherlands and Belgium will be in ten or twenty years. I am not saying that a country should never make a legal arrangement. It may have to. But if one views assisted dying only as a last resort - as I think most countries that are contemplating legalization do - then first have a look at the Dutch and the Belgian examples."
If Professor Boer set the scene, the next session drove home just how real the problems associated with a culture of death actually are. It is difficult to write this without still being emotionally affected by the testimonies of Marie Gleeson, Judi Taylor and Tom Mortier concerning the loss of a loved one to this 'creeping death cult', as one called it. Justice may be elusive and she may be blind, but she does and will have her way.
The symposium covered a great deal of ground. We heard from disability activists, both local and international about the 'frontline' work that they engage in and how important it is to work in coalition with others. This is in keeping with an important principle: that everyone who opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide is welcome and that we leave all other issues at the door for the sake of the common cause that brings us together.
On that practical level we were also provided with some very recent examples of good campaigning from Tasmania, the USA and the UK as well as examples of where partnerships between organisations and individuals have worked particularly well.
We also heard from Alex Schadenberg and Brendan Malone about how we can be effective in presenting our message, the role of young people and engaging with the media.
Many people commented that the session covering medical issues, ethics and the data could perhaps have been much longer. With presenters like Dr Paul Dunne, Henk Reitsema, Alex Schadenberg and Dr John Fleming, I don't doubt that we could have devoted an entire afternoon to their particular subjects without any loss of attention!
The day was ably rounded off by an address by Dr Kevin Yuill from the UK presenting the Liberal, Humanist case against assisted suicide and by Catherine Glenn Foster who presented a tour de force of the global legal landscape.
We were honoured to hear from The Hon Kevin Andrews MP, our guest speaker at the symposium dinner. Kevin shared with us all some insights into the 1996/1997 debate in our Federal Parliament (on a bill that colloquially bears his name) that saw the very first euthanasia laws in the world overturned. Though many of us will have known a great deal about that debate, Kevin shared some moments and some insights which no-one I spoke to had ever heard before. It was a fitting conclusion to what, from all reports, was considered to be an excellent event!
A huge 'thank you' to everyone who attended the symposium and to our speakers who gave so generously of their time. Thanks also to our major sponsors, CalvaryCare and Amadio Wines for their generosity and commitment to this cause. Thanks also to my daughters, Miriam and Hannah who worked so hard to keep the event running smoothly and also to the HOPE committee for their support and hard work.
Let's make sure that we all learn from this event in ways that make us more effective and committed to ensuring that our home states, wherever that might be, remain free from euthanasia and assisted suicide!
The video recordings of the event and special interviews will be produced into a DVD set shortly that is designed specifically for educational purposes. Make a note to order your copy shortly!