‘Silver linings’: How a grieving mother’s fight for voluntary assisted dying in South Africa inspired a political lawsuit | South australia
Liz Habermann hadn’t really thought about voluntary euthanasia until her dying son, Rhys, mentioned it.
The 17-year-old’s painful hip had turned out to be aggressive Ewing’s sarcoma, and it was terminally ill. Rhys suffered the unimaginable physical and mental trauma of the disease and the treatments, until one day he said, “Let me die.”
Shortly after her 19th birthday, doctors said there was nothing more they could do, that tumors were raging all over her body.
“We talked about it a lot,” says Habermann. “At first, he asked each of us in private what we thought of euthanasia, of voluntary assistance in dying.
“It wasn’t something I had to think about. Suicide is a difficult subject, whatever the circumstances.
“But we said… we will stand by him in whatever decisions he makes. There were times when we would come home and go to his door, and we wondered what we were going to find. Or we would send him a message with a heavy heart [waiting for the response]. “
Rhys was in hospice care, with a doctor suggesting more treatment even though there was no hope. Rhys, whom his mother describes as deep, caring and fearless, was horrified at the thought. Now an adult, he retired from hospital and Habermann drove him to his home in Wudinna, a small town on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.
In the car, Rhys thanked Habermann for everything she had done.
“When Rhys got home we knew what he was going to do,” Habermann says.
He had one last hug with Habermann, his father, Brett and brother Lewis, while his other siblings were protected from this last moment.
Rhys, worried about the impact his death would have on his family, recorded a video saying, “I believe in my right to die of my own choosing.”
The grieving family still had to undergo an 18-month police investigation.
Rhys died in 2017. Four years later, Habermann joined the battle to pass voluntary assisted dying laws in South Africa. After 30 years, 16 failed attempts and a concerted battle by lawyers, the laws were passed in June.
Now Habermann is choosing a different battle – she is going to run as an Independent in the safe Liberal seat of Flinders as the SA heads to the March elections.
She’s on the local Wudinna District Council, and people have started talking to her about standing – initially in Gray’s federal seat, held by Liberal Rowan Ramsey since 2007.
But she settled in the seat of state, a liberal stronghold. She believes the region has been taken for granted by governments and plans to change that by ousting the Liberals – sitting MP Peter Treloar should be replaced by Sam Telfer in the election.
(The ABC reports that South African Senator Rex Patrick could run for Gray, sparking speculation that his former colleague Nick Xenophon could return to politics via the empty Senate seat that would leave.)
She regularly meets other independents as part of the community group ‘Voices for’, which includes Warringah MP Zali Steggall, Helen Haines d’Indi and her predecessor Cathy McGowan, as well as an array of hopefuls contesting the seats held. by the Coalition.
Since the family moved to Wudinna 15 years ago to run a bakery known for its slices and vanilla pies, Habermann has seen the population decline.
The peninsula’s rail network was shut down in 2019 after the state government terminated the lease. Getting the trains back on track will be one of Habermann’s priorities, to reconnect the vast area with the rest of Australia. This “lifeblood” will help with everything else, she says, such as securing proper health resources – Wudinna recently lost her only GP, who cited a lack of support for her resignation.
Treloar owns Flinders by a margin of almost 30%. The electorate, which stretches from the Eyre Peninsula to the border with Western Australia, has never been detained by Labor.
After Rhys’ death, Habermann says, meeting other VAD advocates such as Labor MP Kyam Maher and journalist Lainie Anderson was one of the “silver liners”.
When people, including Marie Shaw QC, encouraged her to get into politics, she initially thought it couldn’t get worse.
Watching the VAD bill being debated left her frustrated with disconnected politicians, but when the bill was finally passed she was elated and filled with hope.
“I hope this is something that will never benefit me, and it’s obviously too late for Rhys, but so many people will benefit from knowing they have a choice now,” she said.
“There were so many people involved. When he was adopted it was exciting… it’s exciting that you can actually make changes. “
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