The euthanasia argument

Paula Westoby
Paula Westoby
The death this week of Exit International Dunedin convener Paula Westoby, and the discharge without conviction of an Auckland man who helped his chronically ill wife die, has again sparked discussions about end-of-life choices.

Euthanasia advocate Ms Westoby would no doubt have been pleased her death has prompted such exchanges, because she encouraged debate about the issue for many years.

It is important to remember this is also a time of private mourning for her family and friends, who must have been shocked and distressed by her death, even while knowing her inclinations.

Right-to-die proponents argue individuals should be able to end their life - with medical help, if necessary - to reduce prolonged pain, suffering or loss of dignity in cases of a terminal illness or conditions that offer no quality of life.

Under Section 179 of the New Zealand Crimes Act 1961, it is illegal in New Zealand to aid and abet suicide. Labour MP Maryan Street has an "End of Life Choice Bill" for possible selection from the members' ballot, which would seek to legalise euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in New Zealand. Ms Street says her Bill is about autonomy, dignity and compassion and giving people "the kind of control at the end of their life that they like to have during their life" and would also avoid the "meaningless prosecution" of those who aid the death of others in exceptional circumstances.

Other right-to-die advocates argue our society treats animals with greater respect and dignity.

The ruling in the High Court at Auckland this week might be a sign judges are taking a more lenient approach to the issue.

Evans Mott helped to research methods of dying and to assemble a suitable kit for his 55-year-old wife, Rosemary, who had an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and died alone in their home.

He pleaded guilty to assisting suicide and was discharged without conviction.

The ruling seems markedly lenient, particularly when compared with the high-profile trials and sentencing of Sean Davison and Lesley Martin. Mr Davison was put on trial last year, initially charged with attempted murder. He pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of "inciting and procuring" his 85-year-old mother to commit suicide and received a sentence of five months' home detention. In 2004, Ms Martin was sentenced to 15 months' jail for the attempted murder of her terminally ill mother.

While Mr Mott's case could indicate a softening in approach, the issue remains highly divisive.

Prime Minister John Key outraged palliative-care health professionals last month with his comments in regard to Ms Street's Bill that euthanasia "effectively happens" already in hospitals.

The comments reignited debate about perceived suffering and the need for assisted suicide. Hospice New Zealand medical adviser Sandy Macleod responded by saying: "Palliative care provides comprehensive management of physical, psychological, spiritual and existential needs of a person facing a life-limiting illness. As sickness progresses towards death, the focus of care is on minimising suffering. To minimise suffering it is not necessary to kill the sufferer."

Other detractors say legalising euthanasia opens up possibilities of abuse, puts increased pressure on the elderly or vulnerable, and that it would be difficult to put enough protective measures in the law to protect against such abuses.

Changing the law could also send a mixed message, given the country already struggles with a high rate of suicide. While the issues are not identical, it would seem contradictory, at the very least, to make it acceptable in law for those in physical pain to end their lives - when health professionals argue that pain can be managed - when society is finally making headway with discussions about helping those with emotional pain realise there is medical and psychological help available to ease such suffering.

As long as the issue remains as contentious and murky as it does, it would seem difficult, and perhaps even irresponsible, to change the laws around it - particularly when it appears the argument is only about the wishes of a few, rather than the overall good of all.



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