Sitting in Susan 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 at 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.
It is two days later and Austen – known to her friends as Suzy – is preparing for a Sunday afternoon thank-you party to all those who have supported her since October 2016.
That was when police officers caught the retired schoolteacher in a vehicle 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. Yesterday morning, when she woke up at 7.15am, was a sleep-in, thanks to the fact the ordeal is finally over.
‘‘In many ways, I feel stronger because I know this is something I can campaign for all my life.’’
Her husband, Mike Harris – also known as ‘‘Jolly Mike’’ – has been beside her through every court appearance – as well as yesterday’s interview.
As the chicken drumsticks heat in the oven, he heads off to the supermarket to get party supplies.
He nods, smiles, rarely interjects as Austen tells her life story – a tale 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.
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, bused past each day for a good portion of her life.
‘‘I think you are my father,’’ she said when they finally met in ¯taki.O
It was then she saw where she got her height, her looks, her big hands.
‘‘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. Mumand Dad supported me . . .’’
Austen got to know her biological father – a generous man who talked a lot and was kind to everyone. She reckons her enjoyment of getting to know people, of wanting to know more about them, comes from him.
She is equally kind about her adoptive 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 World Federation of right-to-die societies President SeanDavison: ‘‘Suzy’s fine of $7500 is peanuts compared to the huge cost of the police investigation and High Court trial to the NewZealand 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 investigationwasmisdirected and their resources could be better utilised.’’ Exit International director Philip Nitschke: ‘‘[Austen’s sentence] could have been worse but she will be disappointed . . . ‘‘It was also of interest howthe New Zealand politicians (like the Australian ones) have been quick to distance themselves from any legislative solution.’’ Voluntary Euthanasia Society president Maryan Street: ‘‘Good people, driven by compassion, are compelled to break the lawwhen 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. Howis it that someone who has demonstrably been a pillar of our society can be, on the surface, a convicted drug importer?’’ cause, the catalyst is the prolonged, painful death of a loved one. For Austen, it was a book.
‘‘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.’’
Her mother took years to die; by which time 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 Wellington’s Voluntary Euthanasia Society branch.
Austen watched the slow withering of her mother. Her eating stopped, her interests vanished, and her eyes closed for the last 21⁄ years of life. She even stopped tapping her foot to music.
There was an advance-directive not to give life-prolonging medication but her mother’s 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 the sidecar on 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 legally.’’
But, for now, death is far from anyone’s mind. ‘‘I just feel so grateful.’’
In this house – the same one police bugged to record an Exit International meeting, then set up a road block nearby to get the names and addresses of the guests – the chicken drumsticks need cooking and Jolly Mike is off to the shops.