In February Canada’s Supreme Court overturned a 1993 ban on doctors helping to end the lives of patients with severe and incurable conditions. The court unanimously concluded that the law impinged on Canadians’ rights and the government now has one year to draft new legislation similar to that employed by several European nations and a handful of American states where the act of ‘mercy killing’ is legal. “This is one incredible day,” said Grace Pastine of British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which brought the case. “Physician-assisted dying is now recognised for what it is – a medical service that brings an end, for some individuals, to unbearable suffering.”
A recent paper published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine also shows Kiwi support for assisted suicide to be significantly high. The report, New Zealanders’ Attitudes toward Physician- Assisted Dying, revealed 78% to be in favour of physician-assisted dying (PAD) in certain situations, with 82% believing it should be legalised. “The results have highlighted the high value respondents place on patient autonomy with regards to end-of-life choices,” conclude the authors. “However, the choice to hasten death is not a ‘right’ that should be available to all.” Now some are calling on the government to re-open the debate.
“However, the choice to hasten death is not a ‘right’ that should be available to all.”
A compelling editorial in the Manawatu Standard in March lamented the high- jacking of the issue, “by fringe elements” who fling “it onto the crackpot pile.” The article went on to call for some much needed perspective. “Euthanasia and assisted suicide are ever on the rise in our social consciousness,” it read. “… This is about the right and plight of New Zealanders and their families in their darkest hours. However one stands on the issue, it should be contributed to with respectful, thoughtful arguments, not fanatical bile.”
Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ believes a reversal of the law would leave society’s most vulnerable helpless. “International evidence shows that deaths by assisted suicide and euthanasia have been increasing wherever practices have been legalised and that the door is opened to a world of abuse,” he says. “There is a slippery slope and the Belgian and Dutch experience has proven this… Belgium has so-called ‘safeguards’ in their law, but a 2010 study found 32% of euthanasia cases were carried out without request or consent. A 2005 study of deaths by euthanasia in the Netherlands found almost 500 people are killed annually without their consent, and at least 20% of all cases aren’t reported.”
Dr Rob Jonquière was one of the main architects of legislation introduced in the Netherlands to allow its terminally- ill citizens the right to choose to die. “Thirty five years of Dutch tolerated and legalised voluntary euthanasia practice shows no sign of a slippery slope,” says the doctor, who is also Communications Director of the World Federation of Right to Die Societies, which spans 24 nations. “[Opponents] think, or they say, they can solve the problem with palliative care, and that is not true, because the main reason why people ask for euthanasia is not because they have pain which you can treat, but because they consider their life not dignified anymore.”
Jonquière last month went on a nationwide tour organised by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand. “Euthanasia in the Netherlands was part of the debate in the medical profession,” he told a meeting in Hamilton.
“I did perform some euthanasia’s in that period, even though it was illegal… you’re doing something according to the wish of the patient you are helping. Ethically, it was the right thing to do.”
The ethics of this issue have been debated since Ancient Greece. Scholars such as Socrates and Plato seemed to offer their support, while Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Western Medicine’, appears to have been against it, having written, “I will not prescribe a deadly drug to please someone nor give advice that may cause his death.” Indeed, it is the Hippocratic Oath, with its promise to preserve life, which leaves doctors with a major moral and professional dilemma. The Herald reports that the New Zealand Medical Association is opposed to doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia and that even if they were to become legal, “the NZMA would continue to regard them as unethical.”
Having spoken to a number of politicians whilst on his tour, that legalisation is something that Dr Jonquière believes is just a matter of time for New Zealand. Interestingly, he also stresses that in the Netherlands up to 70 % of people who request voluntary euthanasia don’t actually go through with it, telling the Bay of Plenty Times, “Knowing in the end there will be a process to be assisted in a dignified, humane way… they could bear more suffering than they ever expected.” At a meeting in Whangarei, Jonquière was accused by some of the assembled crowd of being a murderer and a man of dubious ethics, while one attendee informed him that life is God’s sacred gift. “Life is indeed a gift,” agreed the doctor, “and a gift may be graciously returned, with thanks.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces