Andrew Denton has resurfaced after being out of the public eye for three years – to talk about dying. Photo: Luis Ascui
Andrew Denton first met Ray Godbold around a year ago. So did I. We each came down to Inverloch, independently, for his story.
Ray was a brilliant palliative care nurse, struck down by terminal gastro-oesophageal cancer. As a medical professional he knew the often nasty and tactile way our lives can end, and as an activist he took a stand by going public in sourcing an illegal drug to hasten his own death and avoid those horrors, if needed.
But Ray was also a man who eventually died in distress, only recently, because he grew too ill to ingest his banned substance and – importantly – no other option exists in this country for people who want a way out of their anguish and despair.
Ray Godbold sourced the illegal drug Nembutal from the controversial Dr Rodney Syme, in case it was needed at the end of his life. Photo: Justin McManus
There are no laws here to protect doctors who might wish to help hasten the end, and so people in pain are left with no rights regarding the end of their life – they are left adrift to deal with their “unbearable suffering”.
Unbearable suffering is a term that Denton returned to often this week. He did so in public lectures and on radio and television. After vanishing from Australian media almost three years ago and selling his production company shortly after, one of our most recognisable personalities went into hibernation.
Now finally returned, what does the commentator and comedian want to talk about? Death, apparently.
He wants to talk about the countless accounts of physical and existential suffering that could be avoided here if only we had suitable “assisted dying” laws such as those that exist – and which Denton explored – in places such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Oregon. Ray Godbold is just one man whom such laws could have helped.
“Ray was a gentle man,” says Denton, smiling. “Graceful, calm and very chilled. He had his priorities about the world very much in order. He was a funny man. In that position I would be screaming, but he had this quiet sense of humour.
“It was a remarkable, unique thing to spend a number of months with a man who was dying who, because of his skills, can tell you exactly what’s happening and knows what lies ahead. I found it difficult.”
Ray was dry and upfront. When he slipped on a concrete floor and badly bruised his emaciated frame, he texted Denton with a picture of his injuries and a comment: “You should have seen the other guy. It was Mike,” he wrote. “Tyson”
He once told me that if he wasn’t already dead right by now, he would be skinny enough to ride in the Melbourne Cup. The only trouble would be looking good in the silks, he said, and choosing the right colours.
Of course funny people can still meet a dark end. Ray dropped his guard occasionally. Denton remembers a quiet interview in which the man admitted he had a brilliant life, a brilliant career, brilliant family, but it was lonely. Dying, that is.
Denton’s own father, who used to joke that he would like to die by wading into the deep end of a pool filled with single malt whisky, faced a similar fate 18 years ago when he died slowly of heart disease.
The light left, the happiness faded and the humour went.
“Everything goes, in the end,” Denton says. “These stories are being repeated all over Australia all the time. When the topic comes up, I’ve been struck by how people always – always – have a story about a mother, a brother, father or sister who died badly.”
Ray Godbold wanted the right to die with dignity, but was denied his chance by restrictive Australian laws Photo: Justin McManus
“One should always be careful with opinion polls. But the one law of opinion polls is to follow the trend, and the trend in this country is unbroken over many years. There is no issue on which the public has been more firm in saying what they want than this.”
The catalyst for this new body of interviews and arguments in Denton’s signature style, however, was not one of the many gruesome tales of death – of lung cancer patients struggling for breath, or people with bowel obstructions tasting fecal matter in the mouth in their final moments.
The inspiration was a positive story he read about the assisted death of a father in Amsterdam – one that followed the strict and formal guidelines developed in other parts of the world to provide people with an escape.
The man spent his final days with family and friends, listening to Mozart, reading an ancient Chinese text and gazing upon the moon before dying at an appointed time, with the assistance of a physician.
“That’s civilised. That’s humane,” says Denton. “Nothing removes the sadness of death, but there are things it is within our power to avoid. And we are looking away from that possibility.”
Denton was moved to contact people in these places and understand the process. He talked to the terminally ill but also doctors, academics, lawyers, ethicists, representatives for the elderly and disabled, and people on both sides of the debate.
He travelled all over Australia and the world, recording hundreds upon hundreds of hours of interviews, breaking down the debate and prosecuting the arguments against such laws – arguments that never stood up.
The “slippery slope” tends to be the most misleading of these. Its proponents argue that euthanasia laws could be abused to coerce or devalue the elderly and disabled. Denton investigated countless case studies held up by these lobbies as examples of legislation run wild, only to find the stories had been cynically manipulated to fit a personal ideology.
“I think some people have a deep moral objection to the idea of someone ending their life, and I don’t have an objection to that,” Denton says. There are also those that believe only god giveth and god taketh away. Holding that view is not wrong. But where they are wrong is when these beliefs are imposed on everybody else.”
Using assisted dying in cases of extreme mental illness is another topic Denton seems willing to broach. “Psychiatric euthanasia” might seem anathema to many, but is being navigated in Belgium right now.
Again there are common misunderstandings in play. The laws apply only to people who are legally competent adults, who understand what they are doing. And in many cases, the regimented process of physician consultation and medical panel approval has led to people receiving better diagnoses and treatment, which ultimately saves many lives rather than ending them.
“They are stepping their way through this with great thought,” Denton says. “But this part of the issue is very much at the fringes, and focusing on it too much can potentially de-rail the simple premise of relieving suffering.”
Andrew Denton has spent several months investigating assisted dying laws abroad. Photo: Luis Ascui
Denton would prefer you consider the bulk of cases we know about, or a subset you may not have considered, such as elderly people who have no terminal illness but a range of ailments that make life agony.
“On average one person per week in this category takes their own life,” he says. “It bothers me that we look away from this, when we could be compassionately and rationally addressing a very real issue.”
The podcast series he is producing with support from the Wheeler Centre – titled “Better Off Dead” – should be ready by January and potentially sooner, and has been a full-time commitment for several months.
“I wanted to do something that had value. I kept coming back to this subject, and that’s the truth for me. I feel there is a great injustice happening here. We’re turning our back on people saying we don’t hear you, there’s nothing here for you.”
Before taking up this mantle, the Denton career hiatus has not been marked by half-hatched TV program ideas but travel, from Antarctica to the Kimberley – from trekking in the Northern Territory to scuba diving in New Guinea.
“It’s what I wanted to do, step out of the office and into life.”
He didn’t want to produce another show, or host one. “I reached a point and thought, ‘I’ve done this’,” he says. “So why would I keep doing this? I know how to do this. Why wouldn’t I do something else? I’m really, really glad I did.”
“Life,” he says, “is the true career”.
Seeing the world while he is still young and fit – before he one day becomes infirm and potentially (but hopefully not) faces that unbearable suffering – is all part of his personal philosophy.
Denton has met the dying and those who care for them. He has a sense of what will stay with him on his deathbed.
“Beyond the people I love, none of it will be my work. It’s actually going to be those elemental experiences in the wild places of the planet, that are burnt into my soul.
In the career of my life, I consider those to be considerable achievements.”
Andrew Denton has enjoyed the past three years away from the camera. Photo: Supplied