He knew the end was near when he began choking on air.
Robert Cordover was larger than life.
The 68-year-old spoke six languages, travelling the world for the United Nations.
“A super funny, loud, always talkative guy, his booming voice echoing through the house,” remembers one of his five children, Gideon.
In 2008 he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
First his voice went. He started choking on food. Then water. Finally, it was air.
Robert had seen his mother die slowly and painfully from the same illness.
He determined he would not go the same way.
“Why don’t you guys just take me out to the bush and leave me there?” he scribbled on a piece of paper.
His family thought he was joking. Surely, there must be a better way.
Surveys show around 35 per cent of doctors are willing to help hasten the death of a terminally ill patient.
But his doctors didn’t want to talk about it.
So Robert went to visit Dr. Rodney Syme, author of the book A Good Death and former President of Dying with Dignity Victoria.
The good doctor has made it his life’s work to give people control over their death.
I’m talking about voluntary euthanasia. Not ‘state sponsored killing’, as its opponents like to call it.
Put simply – a dignified end.
Robert smuggled medication back to Tasmania.
“It gave him a new lease on life,” Gideon says.
This is the experience in Oregon in the United States, one of the few places in the world with voluntary euthanasia laws.
In one third of cases, the patients who procure the medication never use it.
In the words of philosopher John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, “Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign”.
This explains why the right has joined the left in supporting the cause.
More than 80 per cent of Australians want the right-to-die laws.
So did Robert.
He soon realised he had to kill himself quickly, before losing control of his motor skills.
If he left it any longer his wife or children would have to do it, risking arrest and jail.
In the same year, Shirley Justins and Caren Jennings were found guilty of manslaughter and accessory to manslaughter respectively for giving the drug Nembutal to former pilot Graeme Wylie.
Last month, Queensland man Merin Nielsen was jailed for three years over the death of his elderly friend Frank Ward.
Despite being in agony, Robert decided to have a wake.
“We worked in the garden, had a huge meal, kind of like a last supper,” Gideon says. “It was a joyous family occasion. Then he went to bed… and he was dead.”
When asked about whether family members were present at the time of death, Gideon demurs.
“I can’t say,” he sighs, “because of the laws in this country.”
Since that day, the passionate and articulate 22 year old has become a campaigner for voluntary euthanasia laws.
“It’s already happening in Australia, but it’s unmeasured,” he contends.
At least four elderly Australians kill themselves every week.
“Bring it out from underground and make it safer,” he says.
Gideon supports the Netherlands model, where euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are legal under strict criteria.
The Royal Society of Canada is calling for the decriminalisation of voluntary euthanasia, “for competent individuals who make a free and informed decision that their life is no longer worth living”.
This week, a British judge ruled a severely disabled man who wants a doctor to kill him, will be granted a hearing.
Yesterday, Greens MP Adam Bandt stood up in Federal Parliament and asked this question: “80 per cent of Australians believe that terminally ill people who request aid in dying with dignity should be supported. Why doesn’t the Federal Government take over the issue of end-of-life decision making, which affects every single citizen as well as the medical and nursing professions? Will you institute an inquiry into voluntary euthanasia?”
For the briefest of moments the house went quiet.
Then the Prime Minister spoke, ruling out introducing a bill – widening the gaping chasm between political action and community sentiment.
Right now, countless people are living in suffering: choking on the air they breathe; screaming in pain that morphine cannot mask; and wondering why they are robbed of this basic human right.
Tracey Spicer is an Ambassador for Dying with Dignity Victoria www.dwdv.org.au. Read the story about how she tried to end her mother’s misery here.