A recent Newshub Reid Research poll has revealed that the vast majority of New Zealanders support euthanasia. Written by Act New Zealand MP David Seymour, the End of Life Choices Bill has 71% of the country’s support, with 19.5% against it and 9.5% unsure.
Under said Bill, a person wishing to end their own life must meet all of the following criteria: be 18 or older, suffer from a terminal or grievous and irremediable illness, or be in an advanced state of irreversible decline, be in unbearable pain that can’t be helped by medication, and be of sound mind to give consent. If these criteria are met, the applicant must be assessed by two doctors.
The church circles in which my family and I move around are, for the most part, vehemently opposed to legalising euthanasia. It was only last Sunday the priest reminded the congregation that assisted dying is tantamount to murder, and that we’d all better get off our backsides and write to the Government in protest.
But today, I’d like to present an argument for legalising euthanasia.
Unless you’re of the Calvinist bent, self-determination and autonomy will matter a great deal to you. Given that we can (largely) determine the course of our lives by our own will and daily decisions, it follows that we have the right to live our lives and determine our own course. Surely, this same self-determining capacity applies to the right to determine how and when we die.
This morning, you probably decided which type of cereal to have for breakfast. You may have decided to study neuroscience at university, or to pursue a career in plumbing instead. Our right to choose is a fundamental aspect of human life. It applies to all facets of human life, of which death is an inevitable part.
But to me, the most important argument supporting the case for legalising euthanasia is the need to alleviate pain, misery and suffering. In circumstances wherein a person has no reasonable chance of recovering, it is far more compassionate and humane to allow that person a merciful release, rather than needlessly prolonging the suffering.
The Hippocratic Oath is often misinterpreted as being against euthanasia. The key element of the oath is that the physician must protect the wellbeing of their patient. A blindly literal interpretation of the oft-quoted ”do no harm” maxim ignores the fact that cases in which it is a choice between intense suffering or death, it can be argued that the physician is doing more harm to the patient by not allowing them to die.
An argument commonly espoused by anti-euthanasia proponents is that euthanasia is immoral because life must be preserved and protected. But in regards to euthanasia, the preservation of life is subject to the self-determined choice of the person, and not the choice of the doctor. Murder obviously infringes on a person’s right to life by removing the element of choice in the person’s death. However, no such infringement occurs when it is the person who chooses how and when to die.
The Catholic Church in particular makes much of the ”beauty” and ”value” of human suffering. But no-one has the right to demand of another person to live a life of suffering. I’ve noticed that those who argue against euthanasia, despite a patient being terminally ill and in severe pain, are usually not the patients themselves.
The most popular objection to the legalisation of euthanasia is the ”slippery slope” argument, wherein proponents cry that legalising euthanasia will inevitably lead to active non-voluntary euthanasia of those society deems invaluable.
I’ve lost count of the number of times people have mentioned that Hitler legalised ”euthanasia”. These people then paint a vivid and horrific image of a future wherein assisted dying is merely the first step on a slippery slope from which mass atrocities, such as the Holocaust, will eventuate. Seriously? It’s downright alarming that people can so blithely draw an analogy between Nazi Germany and the Bill before Parliament. The Third Reich’s idea of ”euthanasia” was far from voluntary. Mass murder was carried out in the interest of the Nazis, rather than the interests of the victims.
The slightest possibility that certain adverse consequences may potentially arise is not a sufficient justification for opposing euthanasia. It must be proved that the feared consequences are reasonably likely to occur. We can turn to Oregon and Canada to see that the aforementioned ”slippery slope” argument has not been borne out in practice.
The Catholic Church may be opposed to legalising euthanasia. Certainly, religious arguments will be convincing to those who adhere to that particular religious viewpoint. But in a pluralistic and largely secular society, the freedom of non-believers must also be upheld. There is overwhelming support in New Zealand for legalising euthanasia. It is simply unconstitutional to ignore the majority vote. Fundamentally, decisions about how we die are deeply personal. Individuals should be given the right to make these decisions for themselves.
This article was originally published in the Otago Daily Times on February 15, 2018.