WelCom November 2016:
Dr John Kleinsman, Director, the NZ Catholic Bioethics Centre
The Health Select Committee Inquiry into Ending One’s Life in New Zealand continues with the presentation of oral submissions. An analysis of the more than 75 per cent of submitters who are opposed, shows a number of key themes emerging.
1. We should not be misled into thinking we can introduce an assisted suicide or euthanasia regime that will remain voluntary. The laws in Belgium and the Netherlands both began like that, but the practice has developed very differently. There, not surprisingly, doctors who become actively involved in such regimes feel increasingly comfortable about bypassing the official programme and disguising what they do as a therapeutic measure, extending the practice to those incapable of asking for their lives to be ended.
2. We should not be misled into thinking we can set up effective safeguards. The ineffectiveness of safeguards is not a legal or procedural matter: it is a human issue. It will be humans who circumvent the safeguards. In Oregon, for example, one of the safeguards is the need for two doctors to certify an applicant is suitable for ‘assisted dying’. However, there is clear evidence there of ‘doctor shopping’, a practice whereby patients seek out sympathetic doctors recommended by pro-assisted suicide groups.
3. We should not be misled into thinking a narrowly defined euthanasia regime will remain that way. When we think about it, it is discriminatory to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia for a terminal patient who claims unbearable suffering whilst denying it to a non-terminal patient who claims similar level of personal suffering. In the Netherlands the parliament is at this very moment considering allowing elderly people to be euthanised for no other reason than they think their life is complete – that is, because they no longer have a purpose in living!
4. We should not be misled into thinking societal attitudes to dying won’t be changed. The year-upon-year growth in cases overseas shows the laws over time have a normalising effect – premature death becomes an acceptable solution for people with disabilities, children with birth defects, psychiatric patients, the lonely and isolated. Far from being an act of compassion, legalising assisted suicide/euthanasia further stigmatises already vulnerable groups within society.
5. Assisted suicide will send mixed messages about suicide prevention. As some continue to argue that assisted suicide should become a societally acceptable and even desirable response to suffering, the Chief Coroner has just informed the country the number of suicides has increased again in the last 12 months – the worst figures since 2008. It is ethically inconsistent to be concerned with suicide rates in the general population while promoting or allowing it for people whose suffering relates to an irremediable condition or a life-limiting illness.