Dangers for the vulnerable

June 25, 2019

Serious question: how do people who believe in minimising the power of the state reconcile that view with support for giving the state the power over the life and death of vulnerable people?

The Bill that seeks to legalise euthanasia would restrict its availability to people with terminal illnesses with less than six months to live.

Doctors can predict how long someone might survive, but they can be wrong.

A year ago a friend was told he had five months to live.

He has just bought a neighbouring farm and is about to launch a newly built boat.

He still has cancer but he is on a drug which has not only kept him alive but is allowing him to live a good life.

Eighteen months ago a friend emailed to say she was on the way to look after her grandchildren because their other grandmother was in the very last stages of life with hours or at best days to live. At the 11th hour she was given a new drug and she now has no signs of the cancer that was killing her.

These are true stories, Jacqui Dean who sat on Parliament’s Health Select Committee, which launched an inquiry in response to a petition calling for a law change to permit medically assisted dying in the event of terminal illness. heard more:

. . . I am opposed to euthanasia, with my resolve only strengthened after sitting on that committee and hearing the heartfelt testimony of hundreds of people who bravely faced death and the families who lost loved ones.

I heard some wonderful stories of love and tenderness, sad stories of heartbreak and loss, stories of great courage and inner strength, and through it all I had the utmost admiration for those who came before us to share their deepest fears and their greatest joys.

The Samoan grandmother who talked of the death of her father – a beautiful and moving family experience which she told us was gentle and loving and filled with prayer.

The woman whose husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour at 28, but who outlived three fatal prognoses and didn’t actually pass away for fourteen years.

This woman pointed out that no-one can predict the final outcome of a terminal illness, and she and her daughter were grateful that they never gave up and that the family got to share those extra years together.

And the blind man who had fought against adversity all of his life and wanted to encourage people to live in hope and not give in to despair.

There were stories of courage and strength, which reflected the best of the human spirit.

Stories from those who made it their life’s work to support the dying through palliative care, and submissions from groups motivated by strong beliefs around death and dying.

We also heard from those approaching the end of their lives.

This included a man, in his 40s who was dying of prostate cancer, who spoke with anger about his life being robbed. And others who said they feared death and wanted to take the pain away as quickly as possible when their time came.

There’s no doubt decisions made at the end of life are emotionally charged, highly personal and reflect circumstances and timing that vary from individual to individual.

The care that people get at this time can make a fundamental difference to people’s experiences.

For that reason, I support the power of good that hospice and palliative care services provide.

Dedicated and diligent guidance from these providers can assist terminally ill people to die peacefully and with dignity.

They believe that if people can come to a place where they can accept their end of life, it can have a huge impact on them and a lasting positive effect on their families.

I was deeply affected by the impassioned testimony the committee also heard from groups representing the disabled, elderly and the mentally ill.

Many of these people genuinely fear for the future if they become a physical or a financial burden on their families. They also questioned whether there could be circumstances where they may be manipulated or pressured into ending their lives.

This worries me deeply. If we legislate for the right to die, the negative impact on vulnerable groups will be huge.

In my heart I simply cannot accept that a law can be developed which will completely protect the vulnerable.

One of the most moving moments of the select committee process came when we heard from a Wellington man who said in the past he had been suicidal.

He recognised the grave consequences if euthanasia was made legal in this country. The option of taking one’s life would become much more normalised and he believed vulnerable people might make a decision that could never be reversed.

Our suicide rates are already too high – we don’t need death by choice as another signal that ending one’s life is OK.  . . 

The Select Committee that dealt with the Bill said it was unworkable. the doctors in the Care Alliance agree with them.:

. . . The Care Alliance, a charity which opposes physician-assisted euthanasia, has taken out a full-page ad in the New Zealand Herald.

The signatories endorse the views of the World Medical Association and New Zealand Medical Association, that euthanasia is unethical, even if made legal.

The letter says it supports effective pain relief and palliative care, and the right for patients to decline treatment if they wish.

But it says crossing the line to assist a person to die would weaken the doctor-patient relationship.

Dr Sinead Donnelly, who organised the letter, said the bill is unworkable.

“The message is that as doctors we don’t want to be part of it. You’re going to, in our view, destroy the profession of medicine by drawing us in to ending the life of our patients and two, the risk to the vulnerable is much too great.”

The letter has been signed by 1061 doctors, of the 17,000 registered doctors in New Zealand. . . 

The NZMA opposes the Bill:

It’s current chair, Kate Baddock said that had not changed and would not. 

“It would be impossible to craft a law that would completely protect people from sublte coercion and it’s also impossible to craft a law that means that people are totally competent,” she said.

“Therefore there should be no law, there should be no euthanasia.”

She is backed up by the Secretary General of the World Medical Association, doctor Otmar Kloiber.

“We have a huge and overwhelming majority that says no, this is not for us, and doctors should not be involved in killing patients,” he said.

“That is a very clear and very broad view which we have.”

Australian ethicist doctor Margaret Somerville spent 40 years in Canada and has nine doctorates, and said it was not over the top to use the word “killing”.

“This is a momentous decision, to say that you will allow intentional killing,” she said.

“You’ve got to be clear about what we really are authorising. This voluntary assisted dying – we all want assistance in dying. And then you give it to the medical profession, the healers in our society, it’s a radical change in our most fundamental values.” . . 

Lawyers have concerns too:

. . .Public lawyer Grant Illingworth QC said it was a very serious issue and mistakes about death and dying could not be undone.

“That’s why we abolished the death penalty in this country,” he said.

“The kind of legislation currently before parliament must contain safeguards that are so clear and so comprehensive, that any possibility of dying by mistake is excluded beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The statute proposed by David Seymour fails to meet that standard by a very wide margin in my opinion.” . . 

Life is terminal, but who can say when it will terminate?

It’s impossible to be precise about how long even very ill people might live and there are very real dangers in giving the state the power over life and death of vulnerable people.


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