Our Right To Decide: Why Mary-Anne could not walk away from her mother

Mary-Anne Cosgrove with a photo of her mother, Blanca. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Mary-Anne Cosgrove with a photo of her mother, Blanca. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

When Mary-Anne Cosgrove made the decision to stand by her mother, who voluntarily took her own life almost two decades ago, Ms Cosgrove knew the ramifications.

She knew she could be charged, she knew she could face prosecution and she knew she could end up in prison.

But her values and love for her mother meant Ms Cosgrove was willing to take that risk.

Ms Cosgrove's mother, Blanca suffered from emphysema and as the condition took hold of her body she struggled to breathe, and was hooked to an oxygen machine. She also suffered from unbearable back pain, that no amount of surgeries was able to fix.

Blanca's condition took a turn for the worse during the 2003 Canberra bushfires.

"The city was blanketed in thick smoke for some weeks and her condition deteriorated noticeably during that time," Ms Cosgrove said.

"By the end of that time she was taking oxygen and she felt very distressed at the idea of being hooked to a machine... she didn't want to live that way."

Blanca started to read about voluntary assisted dying and asked Ms Cosgrove to get her a copy of a book on the subject.

At this stage, Ms Cosgrove said her mother had already made her wishes clear. Ms Cosgrove said she had sought other avenues of help but to no avail.

"We had a lot of discussions about how she was feeling, her emotional state, her physical state and the amount of pain she was in," she said.

"I looked for help for her. I wanted her to see a psychologist but she said there is no point going to see a psychologist, the problem is the pain.

"I spoke to my doctor, I said I was concerned about my mum, I wanted to know if there was anything we could do for her and there was nothing that could be done other than what she had already, she was receiving medication for the pain.

Mary-Anne Cosgrove wants the ACT to have the right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Mary-Anne Cosgrove wants the ACT to have the right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

"I spoke to her doctor, told him I was worried about her mental health and about her physical health. I asked him if there was anything I could do to help her and the answer was no."

Ms Cosgrove said she had three choices - she could have her mother committed to an institution, she could tell her mother she would have nothing to do with it or she could support her mother.

She decided to give her mother the book.

"When she asked for help to get that book, I got the book, I was aware that assisting suicide was a crime and that I could be prosecuted and end up in prison because of it, but I made the choice because of my values," Ms Cosgrove said.

"Because I love my mother and I wanted her to know that her family loved her and would stand by her.

"It's a terribly, terribly difficult choice to have to make but I've always felt a strong sense of ethics and values. My values are around having compassion for other people and having courage and being there to support people when I'm needed.

"I couldn't walk away from her."

Ms Cosgrove said her mother was meticulous, and had carefully considered all the elements of her death, and in early 2004 she set a date.

"She thought about it for many months. She set dates and then we persuaded her to change the date because it was close to someone's birthday or it was close to Christmas," she said.

"But she fixed on the date of the 18th of March 2004 and would not be shifted from that date."

On March 18, 2004, Ms Cosgrove watched her mother die. Both she and her father were present at Blanca's death.

Ms Cosgrove said her mother had very detailed plans about how it would happen and also detailed plans for her funeral. But nothing went according to plan.

Blanca wanted a small funeral, and she didn't want anyone to know as she was concerned about the stigma of suicide.

Blanca had left a note for her doctor asking him to write the cause of death as heart failure, but the doctor would not agree.

"We called her doctor and asked him to come over and we gave him the note, and he said by the ethics of my profession I cannot do what she's asked me to do in this note - I'll have to report this to police," Ms Cosgrove said.

"My father and I were very supportive of the doctor, we agreed with his ethical stance."

The police arrived at the house shortly after. They put police tape around the house and Ms Cosgrove and her father were taken away for hours of questioning on the same night Blanca died.

The police also called everybody in Blanca's address book to tell them what had happened and asked their opinion.

Ms Cosgrove and her father lived under the threat of prosecution for two years.

"We didn't know if either or both of us would end up in prison. I didn't know if I would not be able to see my children and my husband," she said.

A date was eventually set for the pair to appear before the Coroner's Court.

"We told our story as openly as we could to the coroner," Ms Cosgrove said.

"The Coroner gave us the judgment that there might have been a case to answer for me purchasing that book on behalf of my mother as being an assistance to suicide.

"However, he did not think it was in the public interest to prosecute."

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Ms Cosgrove spoke to The Canberra Times for the Our Right To Decidecampaign. She believes legislation to legalise voluntary assisted dying is long overdue.

She said she if she had her time over she would absolutely make the same decision again.

"You should be able to sit by your loved ones if they can't stay in this world, if they need to be released you should be able to stand by them," Ms Cosgrove said.

"People have suffered because of the lack of voluntary assisted dying legislation ever since assisted suicide was made a crime."

Ms Cosgrove, who is the chair of Humanists Australia, has become a fierce advocate for the cause, and strongly believes the ACT should have the right to legislate on the issue.

"It took me some time to recover from my mum's death but after I did, I have raised this issue where I can," she said.

"It made me a stronger person, it's made me more willing to speak up for the rights of other people."

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  • This story is part of Our Right To Decide campaign. The Canberra Times is advocating for the ACT to have the right to legislate on voluntary assisted dying, like other states.

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This story 'I couldn't walk away from her': Why Mary-Anne stood by her mother first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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