Monday, 14 May 2018

When compassion becomes a crime


"Good people, driven by compassion, are compelled to break the law when that law is inadequate. This is Suzy's story.

"She is deeply compassionate and unusually brave and has been convicted on two charges of importing a lethal drug. How is it that someone who has demonstrably been a pillar of our society can be, on the surface, a convicted drug importer?"

---Maryan Street, ex- Labour MP

Upstanding 67-year-old turned into a criminal for upholding moral values
Seemorerocks


Now that an 18 month saga is behind us I would like to talk about something that has been sitting on my shoulders.

Euthanasia advocate fined for importing suicide drug






Suzy Austen, who was arrested by police for "aiding and abetting" a suicide, was found not guilty of the main charge by a jury of her peers but guilty of two counts of importing a class-C drug, pentobarbitone.

Despite the fact that this was a slap-over-the-wrist misdemeanour for which only about five people have received a warning.

However, it seems obvious to me that the State, having failed to get their conviction despite the wasting of police time and the huge cost of an investigation and court case to the taxpayer, was going to get its punishment and make an example of someone who is leading a campaign for freedom-of-choice when it comes to End of Life.

In short, the sentencing was a political act.

One would think the Law is there to provide protection to those who need it. In fact, we know this is not the case (rather the opposite; try to get the police interested in investigating the burglary of your house) and that the law is there to protect the property interests of the privileged.

Politically, I am not a libertarian. In fact, I am a great fan of the Law protecting those who need protecting - the weak, the vulnerable and the exploited. However, in my mind there is no crime where there is no victim.  Is the law, in this case, there to protect the moral sensibilities of a vociferous minority in a country where a sense of morality has been all but flushed down the toilet?

When it comes to two issues dear to my heart I am definitely a libertarian - the right to decide when and how we are going to die and the right to use medical marijuana to counter pain and disease.

You would be hard-pressed to convince me that there is a victim in these "crimes".

All of us will be aware how the police are short of resources when it comes to investigating real crimes with real victims, such as burglary or assault. And yet we see how the Police appears to have unlimited resources to go after people with a high level of moral integrity and those who are elderly, sick and vulnerable.

And I wouldn't mind wagering that instructions for this came from on-high. I doubt that the police would have decided to waste their limited resources were there not the political resolve to do so.

In 2016 I was at a meeting of Exit International which, it turned out, was being bugged by the police. On the way home many of the attendees (not me – I took another route home) were stopped by an illegal police road block, designed to get the identities of those attending.

I myself got a visit from the police at 9 am on a Saturday morning. Amidst the questions they asked was the quip from one of the young policemen that I can remember as if it were yesterday: “we are going to put Suzy (they used a different surname) out of action”.

I have heard since of others' experiences. 

One friend had her home searched and material confiscated. Another was told by the police, in a manner that could only be described as intimidation: “we know everything about you. There is nothing we don’t know”.

Imagine the effect of this on a senior citizen who has never put a foot wrong in her life suddenly being treated like a criminal.

This same friend had the presence of mind to say: “the law’s an ass”. Came the reply: “I’m here to uphold the law”. “Well I’m here to change it”, she replied.

Pretty gutsy, but our friend was shaking after the police left and suffered what she described as post-traumatic stress symptoms.

All of this happened towards the end of the last government which used similarly repressive methods against journalists and whistleblowers (out of spite and vengeance by the prime minister).

It seemed pretty symbolic to me that the power of the State should be used against older, upstanding citizens for exercising their rights and advocating for a change in the law (which is indeed an ass) as regards End of Life choices, which the media calls euthanasia, to create the most negative possible impression.

As for Suzy Austen, I can do no better than the following, put together by the author of the article below. 



The Susan Austen interview - from teacher to campaigner to unlikely criminal
TOM HUNT


Austen says Harris has been by her side through every step of the trial.

14 May, 2018

Suzy Austen's mother was an active, vibrant woman who, in the end, was barely a person. She had dementia for thirteen years and finally closed her eyes for the last two and a half.


Sitting in Suzy​ Austen's house high in Lower Hutt's hills on a drizzly Sunday, it's hard to believe you are in the presence of a criminal.

A 67-year-old criminal – a drug importer, no less – tried, convicted, and sentenced in the High Court in Wellington. The drug was pentobarbitone, commonly used for euthanasia.

Her sentence, handed down on Friday, was a $7500 fine. More than the discharge without conviction sought, but less than what could have been.

Euthanasia campaigner Suzy Austen, with her motorcycle enthusiast husband Mike Harris.
Euthanasia campaigner Suzy Austen, with her motorcycle enthusiast husband Mike Harris. - ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

Euthanasia campaigner Suzy Austen, with her motorcycle enthusiast husband Mike Harris.

It is two days later and Austen is preparing for a Sunday afternoon thank you party to all those who have supported her since October, 2016.

That was when police caught the retired school teacher in a car in a Lower Hutt car park – with a friend in her 80s – wearing rubber gloves and repackaging pentobarbitone.

The past 18 months have been hard. She lost weight and her sleep patterns changed. Sunday morning, when she woke up at 7.15am, was a sleep-in, thanks to the fact the ordeal is finally over.

Austen says Harris has been by her side through every step of the trial.

"In many ways I feel stronger because I know this is something I can campaign for all my life."

Her husband, Mike Harris, "Jolly Mike" to his friends, has been beside her through every court appearance. He sits with her through Sunday's interview.

As the chicken drumsticks heat in the oven, he heads off to the supermarket to get supplies.

He nods, smiles, rarely-interjects as Austen tells her life story – a story that begins as an adopted baby and has now seen her become one of New Zealand's most high-profile campaigners for a change to euthanasia laws.

She moved from Dunedin to Wellington when she was 13 and grew up in Hutt Valley, where she now lives. She became a teacher, initially at Parkway Primary in Wainuiomata then Martinborough in Wairarapa.

Suzy Austen with a photo of her with her mother.
Suzy Austen with a photo of her with her mother. - ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF


Austen was 35, the mother of two young boys, when she began the search for her birth parents.

She eventually tracked down her birth mother, Iona Potter. They reconnected but Potter died six months later and the clues to her father were vague. He was Welsh, tall, and from a visiting sports team.

That sports team was the British Lions and that sportsman was Don Hayward. Hayward had since moved to New Zealand and was running a butcher's shop in Wainuiomata that Austen, unknowingly, bussed past each day for a good portion of her life.

"I think you are my father," she said when they finally met in Ōtaki. It was then she saw where she got her height, her looks, her big hands.
Suzy Austen with a photo of her with her mother.
ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF
Austen was 35, the mother of two young boys, when she began the search for her birth parents.

She eventually tracked down her birth mother, Iona Potter. They reconnected but Potter died six months later and the clues to her father were vague. He was Welsh, tall, and from a visiting sports team.

That sports team was the British Lions and that sportsman was Don Hayward. Hayward had since moved to New Zealand and was running a butcher's shop in Wainuiomata that Austen, unknowingly, bussed past each day for a good portion of her life.

"I think you are my father," she said when they finally met in Ōtaki. It was then she saw where she got her height, her looks, her big hands.
Supporters of Susan Austen outside Wellington District Court ahead of her sentencing.
Supporters of Susan Austen outside Wellington District Court ahead of her sentencing. - TOM HUNT/STUFF


"He said, 'I have always wanted a daughter', which was just magical and it was just open arms. It was such a wonderful experience of so much joy to everybody. Mum and Dad supported me..."

Austen got to know her biological father – a generous man who talked a lot and was kind to everyone. Austen reckons her enjoyment of getting to know people, of wanting to know more about them, comes from him.

She is equally kind of her adopted parents.

It was her father who gave her the book Jean's Way by Derek Humphry, the tale of a terminally-ill woman suffering from incurable cancer who ends her life with drugs supplied by her husband.

For many involved in the euthanasia cause, the catalyst is the prolonged, painful death of a loved one. For Austen, it was a book.


Suzy Austen at her home in Lower Hutt, the same one police used to bug an Exit International meeting. - ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF


"Dad firmly believed in end-of-life choice ... I always knew that this was what he would choose – to end his own life if he found it was unbearable. But, dare I say it, fortunately and gracefully, he faded away very quickly."

By the time her mother took years to die, Austen was already involved in the euthanasia movement.

She gave up her teaching job, "which I absolutely loved," and had time to study more and joined the Wellington branch of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.


Susan Austen leaves Wellington High Court with her husband Mike Harris after being sentenced for importing euthanasia drugs. - KEVIN STENT/STUFF


She watched the slow withering of her mother – her eating stopped, interests vanished, eyes closed and foot stopped tapping to music.

There was an advance-directive not to give life-prolonging medication but her heart was strong and went on for 13 more years.

"I don't believe she suffered .... but it was cruel for her because she was an active vibrant, generous woman."

Austen's own death would appear to be a long way off. She still rides side-car in her 87-year-old husband's motorbike and has the energy of a young woman. But we all die. Have her own adult sons, who recently gave her a grandson and granddaughter, been given instructions?

"Not specifically. I know they know what I believe. I know they would do whatever they could do legally."

But for now death is far from anyone's mind.

The guests on this wet Sunday include her legal team and supporters who turned out court date after court date. Austen is now famous but insists she is still the same person.

"I just feel so grateful," she says.

In this house – the same one police bugged to record an Exit International meeting then set up a road block nearby to get names and addresses – the chicken drumsticks need cooking and Jolly Mike is off to the shops.

FROM HER SUPPORTERS:


World Federation of right-to-die societies President Sean Davison.

"Suzy's fine of $7500 is peanuts compared to the huge cost of the police investigation and High Court trial to the New Zealand taxpayer.

"If a real crime had been committed I believe the police should leave no stone unturned in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but on this occasion I feel the investigation was misdirected and their resources could be better utilised."

Exit International director Philip Nitschke:


Head of Exit International Philip Nitschke. - DAVID MARIUZ
.

"[Austen's sentence] could have been worse, but she will be disappointed ...

"It was also of interest how the New Zealand politicians (like the Australian ones) have been quick to distance themselves from any legislative solution."

Voluntary Euthanasia Society president Maryan Street​:


Maryan Street, assisted-dying campaigner and former Labour MP. - ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

"Good people, driven by compassion, are compelled to break the law when that law is inadequate. This is Suzy's story.

"She is deeply compassionate and unusually brave and has been convicted on two charges of importing a lethal drug. How is it that someone who has demonstrably been a pillar of our society can be, on the surface, a convicted drug importer?"


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