Better Off Dead



Andrew Denton investigates the stories, moral arguments and individuals woven into discussions about why good people are dying bad deaths in Australia - because there is no law to help them.


  • Bonus Episode 14: Last Words: Voluntary Assisted Dying

    27/05/2021 Duration: 56min

    Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying law came into effect in June 2019. The first of its kind in Australia and touted as the most conservative in the world, the passing of Victoria’s law was a watershed moment for end-of-life care in this country. More than eighteen months on, in April 2021, what effect is this law having on end-of-life care for terminally ill Victorians? Is the law working as planned? And is there room for improvement? The final episode of Better Off Dead season two centres on a recording of the Wheeler Centre’s Last Words: Voluntary Assisted Dying panel discussion. Previously broadcast on Radio National’s Big Ideas programme, it features a panel discussion on voluntary assisted dying hosted by Paul Barclay. Panelists include Andrew Denton, founder of Go Gentle Australia and host of the Better Off Dead podcast; Justice Betty King QC, Chair of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board; Professor Phillip Parente, oncologist; and Ron Poole, a terminally ill Shepparton man who has chosen to acce

  • #13 Unintended Consequences

    24/05/2021 Duration: 41min

    When Victoria’s VAD law was passed in 2017, it was touted by Premier Daniel Andrews as ‘the most conservative in the world’. This was true. Its 68 safeguards made it a far more daunting law for terminally ill people to access than similar laws in other countries.  But was it too daunting?  Much was said in parliament by opponents about the law’s ‘unintended consequences’. What if there are wrongful deaths? What if the doctor-patient relationship is damaged? Palliative care diminished? None of these fears have turned out to be true. But that doesn’t mean there have been no unintended consequences. They’ve just turned out to be not as opponents argued. In this episode, we hear from the families of two eligible Victorians who struggled to access VAD. And we hear something never heard before —-- a father and daughter as they actually go through the process of applying for a VAD permit, a process during which initial gratitude quickly turns to frustration, fear and anger. Allan Cornell and his daughter Kristin:

  • #12 A Cry For Help

    19/05/2021 Duration: 51min

    Whether it is through the words of the pope, his representatives the bishops and archbishops, or its surrogates in the medical profession, the Catholic Church remains the most determined force against voluntary assisted dying in Australia. In 2020, The Vatican released its latest encyclical on assisted dying and euthanasia. They called it Samaritanus Bonus – the Good Samaritan – and this is what it had to say about people who seek assistance to die. “Experience confirms that the pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact, it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love.” Requests for assistance to die are ‘not to be understood as a true desire for euthanasia.’ In other words, the people making them are somehow misguided. According to this narrative, people making such requests are likely to be demoralised; lonely; abandoned, feeling like a burden; or struggling to find meaning in – or even giving up on -

  • #11 The End of Life Lottery

    17/05/2021 Duration: 50min

    The assisted dying debate in Australia has revealed two parallel universes. The conservative Christian universe, which believes our lives belong to God; that whatever happens at the end of life is part of His plan. And the other universe – embracing 75% of Australians (including a majority of Christians) – with a shared belief we should have some control over how we die. Two different, but both entirely sincere, belief systems. What happens when these parallel universes intersect? What can it mean to die in a system where you are disempowered, and whose values you don’t share? Dame Cicely Saunders Photo: Wikimedia Commons Shayne Higson (second left), pictured with her sisters and their mother Jan (farthest right) who died of brain cancer: 'I thought that [with] terminal sedation … there would be no suffering, but that's not right' — Photo: supplied “What people don't realise is that they're entering an environment with particular values, and a history about what is okay, or not okay, and the nature

  • #10 We Who Walk Towards Death

    12/05/2021 Duration: 51min

    At the heart of the political debate around voluntary assisted dying lies palliative care. On one side sits the argument that it can effectively deal with all pain and suffering, and that it should be made available to everyone before Assisted Dying is made legal. On the other, a recognition that – for all its benefits – palliative care cannot help everyone, and that those beyond its help should not be left to suffer, or – as some do – take their own lives. But beyond the political debate, within palliative care lies a much deeper argument. One about values. Palliative care’s background is as a provider of Christian care; more than half of Australia’s palliative care is supplied by The Catholic Church. According to The Vatican, assisting someone to die is ‘intrinsically evil.’ By papal decree, any request by a person for help to end their life is not to be taken as genuine, but is to be understood instead as ‘an anguished plea for help and love.’ But some palliative care clinicians have a different set of va

  • #9 The Light Under the Bushel

    10/05/2021 Duration: 48min

    In September 2020, as Tasmania’s Upper House prepared to debate an Assisted Dying bill, an article appeared on the online publication Mercatornet. Above a picture showing a graph of a flatlining heartbeat superimposed over an elderly hand was a headline in big, bold letters: ‘Grandma took her life yesterday. Her doctors helped her.’ The article described a lonely, elderly woman, seemingly abandoned by her family in a Melbourne nursing home during COVID, encouraged by her doctors to end her life using Victoria’s Assisted Dying law. Photo: the image used by Mercatornet Within days, it was being promoted by religious groups and The Australian Family Association as a warning to MPs about why they should vote down the Tasmanian bill.  In this episode, we reveal the truth behind that story. Who was Grandma? Had her family really abandoned her? Was her decision to die her own, or was she encouraged?   And what was it that connected the crusading author and the website that gave her story a global platform? ‘J

  • #8 The Good Samaritan

    05/05/2021 Duration: 44min

    The key word in Victoria’s voluntary assisted dying law is the first one: ‘voluntary’. By law, any doctor, nurse, or other health professional who conscientiously objects can choose not to participate in a person’s request for voluntary assisted dying. But how does an institution balance its employees legal right to conscientiously object with its obligation to care for its patients? Colin M, champion swimmer. “They were just playing in the waves. And he got dumped in one of those freak accidents and he knew straight away that he'd had a catastrophic injury.” -- Photo: Supplied In this episode, we meet Colin, a former champion swimmer and  professor of philosophy who is dying and who has applied for the legal right to end his own life. Colin lives by the ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism. This is what the Stoic Marcus Aurelius had to say about death: ‘Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed’. For a Stoic, it is good to

  • #7 The ‘C’ Word

    03/05/2021 Duration: 53min

    There are many firsts in Betty King’s life. First female prosecutor for the state of Victoria. First female prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Australia. First female silk in Victoria. Now another – first Chair of Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board. Reporting to parliament, the Board oversees the processes of the law with its 68 safeguards, ensuring that doctors adhere to the rules, and that the people seeking assistance to die are competent and not being coerced. Of all the doubts raised by MPs in the parliamentary debate about assisted dying, none was more frequent than the fear that a vulnerable person may be coerced to their death by heartless relatives through the VAD law.  In this episode, we meet Betty – the “Guardian of the Safeguards’ – as well as doctors, palliative care physicians, pharmacists, VAD Care Navigators, and families of those who have been through the process to find out whether any of those fears have turned out to be true. And we discover there is another, unwritten safe

  • #6 The Locked Box

    28/04/2021 Duration: 37min

    Imagine turning up to work one day to discover flyers outside your office accusing you of being a ‘death peddler’ and an ‘Uber service for poison’. Professor Michael Dooley runs Victoria’s Statewide Pharmacy Service. When voluntary assisted dying became legal it was his job, and that of his team, to come up with medication that would effectively and painlessly end a terminally ill person’s life - and also also a way to safely get it to them. Michael and his team are the last step – and the final safeguard – in the long legal process a dying person has to go through to access the medication. What is it like to walk into someone’s home to give them a draught designed to end their life? Who do they meet and what do they hear? And what happens if, at this very last step, they have to tell someone, ‘I’m sorry, but no.’?   “We find leaving very, very difficult. Because you have to say goodbye... and we've all talked about how we do it… And there's no easy way and we all have our own little way. You know, it's no

  • #5 I Choose Not to Suffer

    26/04/2021 Duration: 52min

    So much was said during Victoria’s parliamentary debate about the people who would choose voluntary assisted dying, were it to be made legal. That they could not possibly know their own minds.   “I do not believe that an individual who is facing such enormous pressure and stress is capable of making a decision to end their own life.” Nat Suleyman, MP That the burden of possessing life-ending medication would be too much for them. “If I was in that situation, I would probably think about it every hour — ‘Will I take it now? Will I take it tomorrow? Will I take it after I’ve watched my favourite TV show?” Luke O’Sullivan, MLC That they would be pushed into ending their lives by hard-hearted relatives. “Sometimes the relatives might … be wanting to encourage the person to take their medicine — take their poison, I should say.” Neil Angus, MP Or that they should never even need to make such a choice, because palliative care could alleviate all their pain and suffering. “Advances in palliative care medic

  • #4 Do No Harm

    21/04/2021 Duration: 46min

    No group has done more to persuade politicians to oppose assisted dying in Australia over the last 20 years than doctors. Citing their Hippocratic Oath to ‘do no harm’, they argue that giving doctors the right to ‘kill’, instead of cure, will forever damage the doctor-patient relationship.  What they fight so fiercely to preserve is a world strongly influenced by Christian concepts of care, one where ‘doctor knows best’, even when it comes to the end of a person’s life. Not all doctors feel this way. In this episode, we meet a number of physicians from very different backgrounds, who think the old paternalism is not always what’s best for their patients. Dr Cameron McLaren - Photo: Juliet Lamont Dr Nick Carr - “I remember how powerful it was ... I just held her hand and I kissed her forehead and said goodbye, because it just felt right.” - Photo: Supplied Each came to voluntary assisted dying through different paths, but from similar clinical experiences: the undeniable reality that there are some pe

  • #3 Lucky Phil

    19/04/2021 Duration: 39min

    “Thou shalt not kill” - The Sixth Commandment Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying law was written to allow an eligible, terminally ill patient to drink a lethal medication to end their suffering; choosing to drink being considered the ultimate voluntary act. But the law allows, in exceptional circumstances, for a doctor to intravenously administer that medication to end their patient’s life. Who would need such a thing? And what impact does it have on a doctor when they are asked to transgress the age-old commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’? Katie Harley and her father ‘Lucky’ Phil Ferrarotto. “It was like Dad designed … those last few moments and it was exactly the way he wanted it.” - Photo: Supplied In this episode, we meet oncologist Cam McLaren, who is faced with the question, “Am I capable of ending my patient’s life?” And we meet Katie Harley. Her father Phil – Cam’s patient – has had so many forms of cancer, he’s like a gothic version of the Cheshire Cat – more and more of him removed till just abo

  • #2 The Fire or The Fall

    15/04/2021 Duration: 36min

    Warning: This episode of Better Off Dead contains references to suicide and self-harm. These include discussions about how some terminally ill people have tried to end their lives in the absence of voluntary assisted dying laws. We are aware of the Mindframe guidelines on appropriate language around the discussion of suicide and self-harm, and we have endeavoured to limit this detail.  If you are likely to be distressed by this material, we recommend that you proceed with caution. Please have a self-care plan in place and let others know that you may be upset. Please see a list of services at the bottom of this episode page. The images from 9/11 of people jumping from the World Trade Centre to escape the searing heat of the buildings melting beneath them haunt us still.  Accepting that the only choice facing these people was a choice of how they would die – death by fire, or falling into oblivion – NYC’s Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Hirsh, chose to classify their deaths, not as suicides, but as homicides.

  • #1 The Belly of the Beast

    13/04/2021 Duration: 33min

    Spurred by watching his own father die painfully, in 2015 Andrew Denton set out to investigate – why are good people being forced to die bad deaths?  Five years later, Victoria is the first state in Australia to have passed a voluntary assisted dying law. In the first year of the law’s operation, over 120 people sought assistance to die. More than a year into its operation, it is possible to look at the hypothetical harms (and genuine fears) raised by those opposed to the law and compare them with the actual experience of assisted dying. Paul, Michelle and Jean Caliste, with a photo of Robbie — Photo: Supplied In the first episode of season two of Better Off Dead, we meet the family of 36-year-old Robbie Caliste. Robbie was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in the same year the Victorian parliament endorsed medical assistance to die. In November 2019, he became the youngest person to die under the law. Robbie and his parents Jean and Michelle help us understand the word which, more than any othe

  • Season 2 Trailer

    01/03/2021 Duration: 03min

    Andrew Denton investigates the stories behind Victoria’s landmark Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) law: Who seeks to use it, and why? Who are the doctors stepping forward to help them? And how does the church continue to resist a law it describes as ‘evil’? Co-produced by Go Gentle Australia and the Wheeler Centre, season two of Better Off Dead looks at what happened in Victoria after the legislation came into effect in June 2019. "It’s not an easy process. But neither should it be. This is the ending of a life. And it ought to be treated in a serious manner – because it's a serious thing to do." – Former Supreme Court Justice, Betty King, now Chair of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board. Please note: this podcast is not about suicide. If you are interested in increasing your understanding of suicide and how to support someone experiencing suicidal ideation, visit Conversations Matter or BeyondBlue. If you (or someone you know) require immediate assistance, contact one of the following 24/7 crisis support

  • #17 Why Do I Have to Go Through Hell to Get to Heaven?

    12/04/2016 Duration: 52min

    20 years ago, four dying people were able to access the Northern Territory’s world-first law to help them die more mercifully, before the law itself was extinguished. By the end of 2016, over 100 million people on three continents will be able to access such laws – the most recent places to adopt them being America’s most populous state, California, and Canada. Since that Northern Territory law was overturned in 1997, nearly 30 attempts to create a new one here in Australia have failed. But as the tide of history turns in favour of assisted dying, how much longer can our politicians continue to ignore the call for change? Bob Hawke, left, and Heather Bell — Photo credits: Bob Hawke by Eva Rinaldi (CC-BY-SA); Heather Bell, supplied The old arguments that have held such sway – about the elderly and the vulnerable being unsafe under these laws – no longer hold. Over a decade of experience in Europe, and nearly two decades in America, have shown us that the safeguards do work: that good laws can be created to

  • #16 Abandon Hope

    06/04/2016 Duration: 46min

    Paul Russell — Photo: Supplied My search for the truth about assisted dying began when I was invited to attend the HOPE International Symposium in Adelaide, featuring anti-euthanasia speakers from around the world.* There, I heard dire warnings about what was happening in Belgium, the Netherlands and Oregon – where laws to help people die already exist. At their heart lay two key accusations: that the safeguards don’t work, and that the elderly and disabled were threatened. I took careful note. Many months later – having taken off overseas to see if their warnings held true, and spoken to experts worldwide – I sat down with HOPE’s founder and director, Paul Russell, to talk through what I’d learned. * HOPE director Paul Russell has pointed out that he did not invite Andrew Denton to attend a HOPE symposium in May 2015 but rather that he agreed for Andrew to attend. We are happy to correct the record. 'I think what concerns me most is the stuff that you almost can't prove, you know.' Paul Russell, founder

  • #15 Lawrie's Story

    04/04/2016 Duration: 43min

    Of all the arguments against assisted dying, the most heartless I’ve heard is this: Suicide is legal. Why do you need assistance to do something that you can do yourself? Every time I hear that thought expressed (and I’ve heard it more than once while making this podcast), I’m astonished at the ease with which the people saying it manage to completely overlook the suffering of the people they’re talking about. In this episode, we’re going to meet one of those people: father of two, Lawrie Daniel. At 50, and stricken with MS, what does it mean to Lawrie to be told, ‘suicide is legal – what’s stopping you?’ Lawrie and Rebecca Daniel at home — Photo: Andrew Denton 'Through MS, I've pretty much lost my fear of dying, because sometimes I think there are things that are worse than death.' Lawrie Daniel Please note: this podcast is not about suicide. If you are interested in increasing your understanding of suicide and how to support someone experiencing suicidal ideation, visit the Conversations Matter or

  • #14 Australia's Dark Little Secret

    29/03/2016 Duration: 52min

    The repeated call by opponents of assisted dying is that the elderly and the vulnerable must be protected from coercion. In this, they are right – and there are many safeguards built into existing laws overseas which do exactly that. But what of the elderly described in this episode by two of Australia’s coroners: rational men and women from loving families – who, faced with an irreversible and painful decline into death, are deciding to kill themselves violently instead? Left: Joan Upton (with cake) pictured with her children Greg, Annette and Robert. Right: Philip Nitschke — Photos: Supplied If the law offers them no other way to end their suffering, who could be more coerced than them? And yet, on these vulnerable Australians – including beloved mothers, fathers, partners and grandparents – the opponents are silent. This silence needs to be challenged. It’s time we talked about Australia’s dark little secret. 'They all know it – including doctors. They know that this person is screaming for help but

  • #13 Now They're Killing Babies

    23/03/2016 Duration: 57min

    Assisted dying has no more committed opponent than the Catholic Church. They have thrown resources, and the full weight of their political influence, against it wherever it has been proposed. That’s why the words of Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher – one of Australia’s most senior Catholic clerics, and a man who commands the ear of many politicians – are worth listening to. Archbishop Anthony Fisher, debating ethicist Peter Singer at Sydney Town Hall, 13 August 2015 — Source: YouTube Listen closely, and what you’ll hear is a masterclass in FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The same seeds sown by opponents of assisted dying to great effect down the years. What lies inside those little seeds of FUD? In this episode – for the first time – we’re going to find out. 'I think it's almost unheard of that the elderly feel more as a burden and the opposite is true. They feel empowered by this, it strengthens them.' Joeri Veen, spokesperson for ANBO – a peak body representing the Dutch elderly – discussing the i

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