Death with Dignity | Q&A with Michelle Flowers

March 03, 2015

On Michelle Flowers’ 35th birthday she received a bundle of letters from her younger sister Angelique. This was no humdrum correspondence; rather they were birthday wishes full of charm and wit. The letters expressed Angelique’s love of nature, art and literature, and most of all her unique and joyful personality, despite suffering from a painful disease since her mid-teens.

A year on, she’s in the last phases of terminal illness, and is struggling to find a peaceful way to die – not in a hospice, but somewhere altogether more in tune with her spirit. Janine Hosking’s innovative and moving film follows Angelique’s final months as she struggles to find grace in an inflexible health care system. Learn more about the issues raised in the film through the Q&A with Michelle.

What are the major differences that you see between Australia and Canada related to the issue of death with dignity, in light of the recent court decision here in Canada? 

From my perspective as an Australian living in Canada, it feels as if the powers that be are listening to the Canadian public opinion regarding dying with dignity. Whilst continual polls in Australia report ever increasing public support for legalizing euthanasia, there is still no forward movement in legislative circles. The tragedy is that in 1995 the Northern Territory (one of Australia’s self-governing territories) became the first legislative assembly in the world to pass a law that explicitly legalized euthanasia. However, this law was nullified by the Federal government in 1997, effectively ignoring the voices of the Northern Territory’s citizens. The Australian government has gone backwards in its care and support of those that are looking to die with dignity as it stubbornly refuses to engage in legal discussions such as Canada has recently done.

Can you give some background regarding the situation that your sister Angelique faced? What were the most frustrating aspects of the medical and legal systems that worked against your sister’s wishes? 

When my sister was diagnosed with cancer, she was given just three months to live. As she began to research her options regarding possible treatments, it was immediately evident that there were no curative choices – only life prolonging treatments. As her pain increased to unbearable agony, she decided that she didn’t want to extend her suffering, she wanted to end it. This led her to the group Exit International: an advocacy group that disseminates information regarding end-of-life choices. It was here that she learnt about the history of the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law and felt the utter frustration and helplessness of her situation.

She was effectively forced to endure unbearable pain and an excruciating and degrading death due to a legal decision made by individuals who were neither terminally ill nor experiencing non-existent quality of life. To have all autonomy removed regarding one of the most personal and private moments of her life, was something that my sister railed against for the next few months. This caused her extreme stress as she researched her options and hid her actions from family, friends and the medical establishment. In her final days when she wanted quality time with loved ones, she was hiding her movements for fear of possible legal ramifications for those she would leave behind.

How has the film helped to raise these issues around death with dignity in Australia and beyond? 

The film has only been shown to a couple of small audiences in Australia but it is hoped that it will be screened at other international film festivals and on television. The comments and support that have come from these viewings to date has been overwhelming. 35 Letters won best documentary at the Sydney Film Festival and best biography at the Australian Teachers of Media awards. In response to this, the Australian Teachers of Media group are producing a study guide to go with the film so that it can be studied in Australian schools. I believe that this recognition of the wonderful work done by Janine and Carol (the director and producer of this film) reflects the growing public awareness and support of an individual’s right to die with dignity.

What policy changes would you like to see implemented in Canada and Australia?

I would like to see euthanasia legalized in both countries – pure and simple. I believe that the examples given by places like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Oregon, as well as others, can help pave a way for legislation to be created that supports the choices of individuals who are some of our most vulnerable members of society.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One element of my sister’s story that is highlighted in this documentary is that her decision to end her life came hand in hand with the fact that she would need to do so alone.  Because of the legal implications, Angelique knew that when the time came, she would have to die by herself with no one by her side. I don’t believe that many of us would choose such a fate: to die in isolation without someone there to hold your hand and remind you how much you are loved.

For people who want to read more about the film or leave comments after they have finished watching it, they can go to the documentary’s Facebook page:

Join us on Wednesday, March 11 for the FREE screening of 35 Letters. Michelle Flowers will be a part of the panel discussion following the screening.

This innovative and moving documentary follows Angelique Flowers, a young woman in the last phases of a terminal illness, as she struggles to find grace in an inflexible healthcare system and explores the issue of death with dignity. This film is the winner of the Documentary Australia Foundation Award at the Sydney Film Festival 2014 as well as the Best Documentary – Biography by ATOM Awards.

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