Faces of Australia: The quality of mercy.

In 2003 Graeme Wylie was diagnosed Alzheimer’s’ disease and he finally died at his home in Cammeray in March 2006 aged 71

Shortly afterwards Shirley Justins (below right), his partner of 18 years was arrested and charged with manslaughter. His long time friend 75 year old Caren Jenning (below left) was arrested and charged with being an accomplice. The reason was that Caren had gone to Mexico on behalf of her friend and (illegally) purchased and imported the drug Nembutal. Shirley (aged 59) gave it to her partner who poured it, and drank in ‘in full knowledge’ that it would end his life.

Yesterday after a six week trial, with both women submitting a plea of ‘assisting suicide’, a jury found they were indeed guilty of manslaughter. They now await sentencing.

That evidence exists he had wanted to end his life has not been in dispute, In 2005 Mr Wylie had applied to the Swiss organisation Dignitas for permission to undergo and assisted suicide. However, the organisation had turned down the request because they had concerns about his capacity to consent as defined under Swiss law.

However, the prosecution case has been that at the time of his death, his capacity to comprehend reality had been diminished to the extent he was *unable* to make the decision to end his life ‘in full knowledge’, and thus the assistance he received made the two women guilty of manslaughter.

The entire issue has been compounded by the unfortunate fact that Mr Wylie had changed his will a week before his death reducing the amount he willed to his daughters and leaving the bulk of his estate to his partner.

Whilst one can understand *why* he would have done this, nevertheless it adds an unpleasant possibility to the mix with the suggestion that after being together 18 years Shirley was willing to kill him for money. The prosecution had a raft of evidence regarding the case much of which threw doubt on the strength of the relationship between the pair.

The result was a confused mix of suspicion and innuendo compounded with family intrigue that turned what might have been a fairly straightforward situation into a far more complex issue.

I’ve little sympathy with the anti-euthanasia brigade whatsoever. I hope if (when?) the quality of my own life deteriorates to the stage that I’m incapable of recognising my daughters, and lose control of my faculties to the extent that my quality of life is  essentially degrading that someone will step in and finish me off without suffering the added trauma of having to defend their actions in a court of law. However I also appreciate that in cases such as this where there is immense doubt about the true motivations of the principal actors the case should be examined more thoroughly.

The problem is now, as ever, that the law simply does not make allowances for people to either end their own lives or request that others assist them to end their lives by making ‘living wills’ etc. The result is that anyone following the last wishes of their loved ones, made whilst they had cognitive capacity to make them, and ending their suffering can leave themselves wide open to the full weight of the law.

Also remember that nobody is allowed to profit from their crime so if a will is made leaving an estate to the person assisting the suicide, such as a wife, who carries out the request, then she is liable to lose all rights to the partners estate!

There is a clear desire rippling through society that the law be changed.

One suggestion might be changes to the law to allow ‘assisted suicide’ if someone has made it clear the conditions under which they would wish it to be carried out coupled with the creation of a ‘tribunal’ of some sort to oversee these cases and only refer them to a court of law *if* there is sufficient evidence that there has been some form of wrongdoing. The court could be constituted to hear cases either before *or* after the event. Whilst ‘after the event’ would be more appropriate from my viewpoint, perhaps *before* might suit social realities.

Will it happen? Actually yes it might. The average age of the population is rising rapidly. This population will experience the normal physical and mental degenerations common to the oldest amongst us. Yes palliative care is available for most who will need it, and is all very well for those who want it, but there is a relatively large sub-set of the population who would prefer not to drag their ending out to extremes made possible by advanced medical care.  All this additional care will of course needs to be financed.

Whilst a small percentage of the cost will derive from the personal accumulated wealth of some individuals, much will have to be produced from the public purse. It might be that sheer numbers might put unsustainable stresses on the economy and so, despite it being for all the wrong reasons, a change might come to allow those of us who *want* to be able to die with dignity a way out.

Currently however, if nothing else, this case has taught us that immediately a diagnosis of terminal illness is made, especially if it signals mental deterioration that we make adequate wills immediately, or perhaps that our material possessions are rapidly transferred to those we wish to receive them to avoid any later suggestion that your death is being hastened for monetary gain.

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