The Hutt News - - FRONT PAGE - TOM HUNT

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.

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