Go away and die: message received by Stephanie Packer

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Terminally ill Californian Stephanie Packer warns that legalising euthanasia is a slippery slope. Photo: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney
Terminally ill Californian Stephanie Packer warns that legalising euthanasia is a slippery slope. Photo: Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney

When Californian mother of four Stephanie Packer was admitted to an intensive care unit in June, and put on a ventilator, her children were told she wasn’t going to come home again.

The four days she spent alone in intensive care were the most difficult days yet of her protracted battle with scleroderma and pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that has caused scar tissue to form in her lungs, requiring constant oxygen to breathe.

“It was the most painful experience I’ve had, physically, emotionally, psychologically,” Packer told The Catholic Weekly.

Four days became two months, and throughout the pain she was reminded of her initial diagnosis in 2012, when doctors in her home state of California told her she had three years to live.

In 2015, Packer’s insurance company told her that chemotherapy drugs prescribed by her doctors were denied under her health cover.

“They don’t see the purpose behind the suffering. There’s so much honour and beauty behind being able to spend time with someone at the end of their life.”

Yet a week after California enacted its End of Life Option Act her insurance company informed her that her physician-assisted suicide medication would be available, for only $1.20.

“As horrible as it all was, I wouldn’t take it. And it was available to me,” Packer said of her hospital ordeal earlier this year.

“It made me understand why people would consider it. So I am thankful for a little more understanding that way. But not one part of me would consider it.”

Had Packer accepted end-of-life medication in 2015, when her doctors advised her she should expect to die, she would have missed out on her oldest son, 18, going to university.

She would have missed out on her eldest daughter, 17, preparing to graduate from high school.

And without six extra years of life, she would have missed her younger children, 15 and 12, “coming out of the darkness” that surrounded an acrimonious separation from her husband in 2016, “at the peak of my illness”.

One issue emphasised by Packer and opponents of the bill, including NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, is the inevitability of safeguards being weakened over time. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
One issue emphasised by Packer and opponents of the bill, including NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, is the inevitability of safeguards being weakened over time. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“Doctors give you the information so that you’re not surprised, and that’s good. But people need to realise that that’s not the end of it,” Packer said.

“Today and tomorrow could be the worst days of your life. And the next day could be the best day you could ever experience.

“They don’t see the purpose behind the suffering. There’s so much honour and beauty behind being able to spend time with someone at the end of their life.”

Packer, a woman of deep faith and longstanding opponent of euthanasia in the US, has lent her voice to the campaign against NSW voluntary assisted dying legislation.

Her story is a centrepiece of a campaign by HOPE: Preventing Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

She has appeared in a series of TV and newspaper ads to inspire NSW, the last state without assisted dying legislation, to reject the euthanasia bill being debated this week in Parliament.

“God took such good care of us. I look back on it and there’s no way we should have survived everything we did.”

“They’re consumed by fear,” Packer said of advocates for assisted dying. “And they’ve got a lot of money behind them. So, no matter how loud our voice is, theirs ends up being louder. People aren’t hearing the message and they’re not being educated,” she told The Catholic Weekly this week.

One issue emphasised by Packer and opponents of the bill, including NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, is the inevitability of safeguards being weakened over time.

“In California, there used to be this longer waiting period and checks, and doctors. Now it’s 48 hours, and you can get it,” Packer said of SB 380, a 2021 amendment to California’s euthanasia law.

The amendment, passed only five years after the law was originally enacted, reduces the waiting period from 15 weeks to two days, removes a mandatory mental health assessment requirement, and effectively compels doctors with conscientious objections to refer requests for euthanasia.

Sunset provisions that would require California to conduct a legislative evaluation in 2026 were also removed by the amendment.

Just as in NSW, these measures persuaded legislators that there were appropriate safeguards around euthanasia for doctors and the terminally ill.

Court room with Gavel
The amendment, passed only five years after the law was originally enacted, reduces the waiting period from 15 weeks to two days.

Senator Susan Eggman, the sponsor of SB 380, said the original law had “too many roadblocks for many dying patients to access the law”.

Packer’s long struggle with illness has had a profound effect on her spiritual life. She sees her many moments of grace in suffering as nothing short of “miraculous”.

“God took such good care of us. I look back on it and there’s no way we should have survived everything we did,” she said.

When she got out of the ICU earlier this year she was told it would be at least six months to a year before she could walk again.

“I was like, ‘I’ve got four kids! It’s just me: single mum, four kids. I don’t have six months to a year.’

“If we lose this particular battle, you don’t stop. You don’t stop. We lose these battles because of a lack of education.”

“And the Lord got me up walking, and I was walking without any assistance in three weeks. I have a new understanding that God’s ways aren’t our ways.”

Despite the often-vicious nature of the debate around euthanasia, in which emotions often run high, Packer is an optimist.

“You know, there are always hearts to be softened. They’re always eyes to be opened. People who want to hear,” she said.

“If we lose this particular battle, you don’t stop. You don’t stop. We lose these battles because of a lack of education.

“If we don’t educate people more and more people are going to die. They want us discouraged.

“I mean, we’ve lost here in California, but you haven’t lost there yet. And just because the law passes doesn’t mean there aren’t lives to save.”

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