EDITORIAL ‘You do it, Mr Seymour’: Euthanasia is not part of healthcare
A senior New Zealand doctor, Ross Boswell, made headlines recently with his submission to the Justice Select Committee on the End of Life Choice Bill because of his tongue-in-cheek suggestion that MPs and mayors carry out euthanasia since doctors are ethically barred.1
The reaction of many to this will surely be: ‘Well that is simply ridiculous’, and I would be one of those. But, that does not mean I disagree with Dr Boswell. As I see it, the point being made is that it is equally ridiculous to think that the agents and gate-keepers of euthanasia should be doctors or health professionals. Yet this point is lost on most people, MP’s included, who assume, uncritically, that the medical profession and euthanasia belong together.
Dr Boswell argues that the ethical proscription of euthanasia by the World Medical Association, reflected in the position statement held by the NZMA and many other health professional organisations, is for practical and clinical reasons: “… patients must be able to consult their doctors in the clear knowledge and trust that the doctor is working to provide care and support, not sizing them up to administer a lethal dose of medication.”2 As Palliative Care doctor Tim Harlow has stated: “We are worried about the very real potential for normalising something that is not, and should not be considered, normal and should not be a part of routine medical practice”.3
It is well known that the original proponents of euthanasia in the Netherlands wanted it to be 'self-determined', that is, available as a personal choice without the need to fulfil any particular conditions such as being terminally ill – effectively euthanasia-on-demand. However, it was originally deemed necessary for doctors to be involved in order to gain public acceptance for the practice and to precipitate the passing of legislation. With the debate in the Netherlands now centring on introducing a ‘peaceful pill’ (allowing people who believe their lives are ‘complete’ to kill themselves without reference to or without the help of a doctor), that goal is likely to be realised soon. In the meantime, groups such as de Einder openly acknowledge they are already promoting such pills illegally on the basis that every person has the right to end their lives without outside interference.4 Bizarrely, but not surprisingly, the fact that it is already happening illegally is one of the key arguments used for making the suicide pill legal; ‘Legalisation is essential for preventing abuse,’ it is claimed.
Over the years, various researchers have studied the effects on doctors of being involved in euthanasia. One such qualitative study by van Marwijk et al (2007),5 titled ‘Impact of euthanasia on primary care physicians in the Netherlands’, used four focus groups involving a total of 22 primary care physicians (PCP’s). It provides a number of useful insights capable of informing the current debate in New Zealand.
Reflecting on the first occasion they were involved, many PCP’s described “problematic, and sometimes even traumatic experiences, such as loneliness, mixed feelings and contradictory emotions”.
While some PCP’s had “‘heroic feelings’ because they were able to help someone”, others “regretted their first performance for reasons such as ‘insufficient awareness of the other palliative possibilities’” or “‘having been manipulated by the family or the patient’”.
Many PCP’s describe feeling relief after the event and feeling satisfaction when it went well, however “a number of physicians remarked that the relief was greatest if the request for euthanasia or assisted suicide was withdrawn.”
Many PCP’s in all groups talked about feelings of loneliness after the event.
PCP’s mentioned various feelings concerning the role of families, “varying from gratitude and satisfaction to pressure, manipulation and tension and sometimes even conflict.”
The study authors conclude: “Euthanasia is a drastic, and sometimes even traumatic event … [The PCP’s] cannot simply resume their daily routine afterwards.”
While some PCP’s said they had no problems or “considered it their duty” to perform euthanasia, many others “are wrestling or have wrestled with the dilemma of why they, as doctors, have to end life or perform euthanasia.”
Most PCP’s have become more reluctant over time to perform euthanasia and a number have decided not to do it.
One quote in the study is particularly instructive regarding the impact of euthanasia on patients. “I hate it. The patient is no longer granted the time for a natural dying process. He’s saddled with the question ‘when do I want euthanasia?’. To have to decide about the moment of death has created enormous unrest around the deathbed.”
There is much to learn from the overseas experience of countries such as the Netherlands. Four lessons stand out, however: (i) Euthanasia is not part of healthcare; (ii) the categories will inexorably widen; (iii) its very availability will impose a significant burden on doctors and (iv) create enormous unrest for families and patients while also burdening patients.
Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre, the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre
3 Harlow T. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care 2015;5:122–123.
4 See https://www.deeinder.nl/
5 Journal of Palliative Medicine (2007), 21, pp. 609-14.
Submission to the Justice Select Committee: End of Life Choice Bill
Staff of The Nathaniel Centre
We oppose the End of Life Choice Bill for a range of reasons laid out in this submission, primarily because: (i) it does not and cannot provide adequate safeguards against coercion; (ii) in giving the choice of euthanasia or assisted suicide to a few, we believe it will severely constrain the choice and/or ability for many others to continue to live; (iii) the practices of euthanasia and assisted suicide contradict medical ethics and are the antithesis of ethical healthcare.
While religious arguments have their own validity within a faith-based framework, we recognise (i) they will not be compelling for persons who do not share that faith perspective and (ii) they are not sufficient for shaping public policy in a secular society. For this reason, our submission will focus on arguments of a social, cultural, ethical and pragmatic nature that can be appealed to by all persons irrespective of their religious background.
The motivation that underpins our opposition to the legalisation of the End of Life Choice Bill is ‘compassion’ – compassion for the many who will be negatively affected by the passage of this Bill, including those who are most vulnerable to the suggestion that they will be ‘better off dead’ because they will come to perceive themselves, or be perceived by others, as being a burden – whether financial, physical, social or emotional. As has happened overseas, changing the law will contribute to a new ‘norm’ for those who are at the end of life, one which will require them to justify why they would not avail themselves of an early death. For example, “In Belgium, a tendency of family members to consider the dying process as undignified, useless and meaningless, even if it happens peacefully, comfortably and with professional support, has been described.”1
The End of Life Choice Bill, in its current form, speaks of “assisted dying”, a term that we regard as imprecise. It fails to differentiate acts of ‘assisted suicide’ from acts of ‘euthanasia’, a difference that has significant legal, political, ethical, practical and social implications. In addition, the term “assisted dying” fails to adequately distinguish between ethically acceptable acts such as withdrawing or withholding treatment (when it is no longer medically indicated) and the intentional ending of a person’s life.
We note that the End of Life Choice Billavoids the use of the term suicide, no doubt because of a view held by some that the premature death of those with a terminal illness can be neatly distinguished from other more ‘tragic’ forms of (non-assisted) suicide. Against this view, we wish to remind you that the Health Select Committee Report clearly debunked this understanding:
Most advocates of assisted dying argued that suicide and assisted dying should not be conflated. They often made a distinction between some forms of suicide and others, suggesting that they can be categorised as either ‘rational’ or ‘irrational’. This distinction was not supported by any submitters working in the field of suicide prevention or grief counselling. On the contrary, we heard from youth counsellors and suicide prevention organisations that suicide is always undertaken in response to some form of suffering, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental.2
The Justice Select Committee should not be distracted by those who suggest that the deliberate and intentional premature ending of lives in cases of terminal illness or unbearable suffering is something other than assisted suicide. If we are to have an open and honest debate about the benefits and risks of intentionally ending life as a way of dealing with personal suffering then we should not be afraid to call it what it is.
We invite the Justice Select Committee to consider a fundamental question: Is it practically possible to carve out exceptions from the current law that will safely allow assisted suicide in certain circumstances (such as terminal illness or any irreversible condition) while discouraging it absolutely in other circumstances? We, along with many others, do not believe that this is practically possible.
For reasons of linguistic as well as ethical and legal precision, we use the terms ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘euthanasia’ (or EAS to refer to both practices) throughout this submission.
Our Approach to the Issue of Euthanasia and Assisted-Suicide (EAS)
We support the concept of people with advanced progressive illnesses being cared for in a holistic way that adequately addresses their need for effective pain relief as well as having their psychological and spiritual needs/suffering addressed. We believe that good palliative care can achieve this, so long as it is able to be sourced equitably by all New Zealanders.
It is acknowledged that even with the best available care, there remain a small number of extreme cases where a person continues to experience intractable physical pain. Likewise, we acknowledge that some people facing an imminent death may continue to experience extreme personal distress of an existential nature that cannot always be adequately managed. In these rare circumstances there already exists the ethical and legal option of ‘palliative sedation’ as a means of last resort. As noted by the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine: “Palliative sedation for the management of refractory symptoms is not euthanasia.”
We acknowledge the stories of ‘terrible deaths’ sometimes cited by proponents of EAS. We are also aware of the advances made in palliative care over more recent times, as well as the fact that not everyone may have had access to the best palliative care. When assessing such stories, an important question is how such deaths would be handled in the light of modern-day palliative care.
The Impact of Context on Choice and Autonomy
In the debate about euthanasia and assisted suicide, much is made, rightly, of ‘individual autonomy’ and the ‘right to choose’. However, what is not often discussed in these debates is the fact that ‘autonomy’ and ‘choice’ are both dependent on and shaped by the social, political and economic context in which we live.
The rise in abuse of our elders3, as well as documented evidence of greater social isolation and loneliness amongst people over 65 years4, highlights a significant cultural shift in our society in recent times – the devaluing of age. Those working in the aged care sector note that many disabled and elderly people express the view that they have become, or the fear that they will become, an unwelcome burden on family and society. Legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide will only exacerbate this situation. It is not an overstatement to describe this as a form of institutionalised abuse of our elders.
Advocates of EAS often refer to the predominance of ‘white, well-educated, well-insured’ recipients of assisted suicide in Oregon as evidence that the ‘vulnerable’ are not at risk from legalised assisted suicide and/or euthanasia. However, the notion of ‘vulnerable’ being appealed to in these instances is limited. For the sick and disabled, the realities of power inequity – between and within families, between patients and medical professionals, between recipients of care and caregivers – come into play for people who, in other contexts and conditions, would not ordinarily be classified as vulnerable.
Laws do not provide effective protection for vulnerable groups; rather, they work by providing recourse to justice after the event. We have good laws to prevent the exploitation or abuse of workers, of children, of women, of tenants, of elders, yet we know there are many instances where these laws fail to prevent such exploitation. EAS legislation will be no more be able to ensure that only those who really ‘choose’ will qualify for assisted suicide than the many other instances of legislation that have failed to protect against abuse. The key difference between an EAS regime and other laws is that there is no satisfactory recourse to justice after a person has died.
While we live in a society that highly values choice, there are numerous examples of limiting choice for the sake of the common good, and more specifically in the interests of protecting the most vulnerable. Maintaining the absolute prohibition of euthanasia and/or assisted suicide is demanded at this time because it is not possible to adequately protect the lives of those who are most vulnerable in the current ageist and ableist societal context. The so-called safeguards in the End of Life Choice Bill do not and cannot protect against the risks of coercion that we have described.
Need for equitable access to Palliative Care
The multi-disciplinary teams providing palliative care report that, when properly funded palliative care is available, palliative care teams are well able to provide peaceful and dignified deaths in even the most difficult cases.
We readily acknowledge that not all people in New Zealand currently experience a good death. The ethical and caring response to this situation is to prioritise the availability of quality palliative care for all New Zealanders. In 2013 the Palliative Care Council of New Zealand noted that the main failing in palliative care is the lack of access and insufficient funding, as well as poor understanding as to what palliative services can do.5
Because the End of Life Choice Bill does not legally mandate palliative care, it does not guarantee real choice and, in the absence of other choices, will operate as a ‘Hobson’s choice’. This constitutes an unacceptable risk, in particular the risk that people will choose EAS out of desperation.
To conclude, the law being proposed will be too dangerous in the current environment for all those who are vulnerable to the suggestion that they will be ‘better off dead’ than being a burden, or those who find themselves unable to access quality end-of-life care.
Involvement of the medical profession
We note that EAS contravenes the professional Codes of Ethics of the World Medical Association and, within New Zealand, the New Zealand Medical Association, the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine, Palliative Care Nurses New Zealand, the Health Professionals Alliance and Christian Medical Fellowship.
The legal, cultural, social and ethical questions surrounding the practice of EAS need to be considered separately from the question about who the ‘agents’ of such deaths might be. It is incorrect and unwise to assume that EAS belongs within medicine.
As well as being incompatible with the profession of medicine, the active involvement of the medical profession in EAS is unnecessary. Were the New Zealand Parliament ever to legalise EAS, it could be implemented without health professionals being directly involved. A precedent for this already exists in Switzerland.6
Jones et al.,7 note that requests for euthanasia in Belgium are more often for non-terminal conditions, that requests often occur in the very early stages of a patient’s disease and that requests often relate to existential or mental reasons that lie outside of the proper role and competence of the doctor.
The proposed End of Life Choice Bill places a doctor in the position of being both life takers as well as life savers. If a doctor is willing to use the assisted suicide or euthanasia option, he/she cannot be devoted fully to the patient’s life interests, interests which, for many patients, will almost certainly go beyond what they may think they want at a particular point in time.
The numbers of deaths from EAS continue to increase in both the Netherlands and Belgium, illustrating the fact that, once legalised, EAS takes on its own momentum. There are well-documented shortcomings with the practice of EAS in both Belgium and the Netherlands. Euthanasia is carried out without explicit consent8 and the proportion of patients referred for psychiatric assessment is much lower than would be expected given evidence of the prevalence of depression and other mental illnesses in patients suffering terminal illness.9,10
In the Netherlands it is estimated that only 4 percent of all requests for physician-assisted death are referred for psychiatric consultations.11 In Washington State in 2016, 5 percent of participants of the Death with Dignity Act were referred for psychiatric/psychological evaluation.12 In Belgium, 9.5 percent (307/3239) of patients whose death was not imminent, were referred to a psychiatric consultant for the years 2012/13.13
There has been a widening of the categories that ‘qualify’ for euthanasia/assisted suicide to include children and patients with dementia and mental illness in both the Netherlands and Belgium. In addition, there are increasing numbers of cases of euthanasia approved where there has been a diagnosis of psychiatric disorder or dementia. 14,15
There is clearly a degree of normalisation of assisted suicide in Oregon, evidenced by the continuing increase in numbers and the failure to refer for psychological examination. The proportion of people referred for psychiatric assessment in Oregon averaged 22 percent over the first five years after legalisation, compared with the average of 3.4 percent the most recent five years.16
One of the requirements of the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon is that “the patient has a terminal illness that would, within reasonable medical judgment, cause death within six months.” Over the period since the DWDA legislation was introduced, 1998-2016, the range between first request and death was 14-1,009 days, that is, from two weeks to 2 years and 9 months.
There is also evidence that the ‘two doctor’ safeguard is easily and frequently being subverted by so-called ‘doctor shopping’ in Oregon as well as in Washington State. A former Medical Director for assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices has stated that:
… about 75 percent of those who died using Oregon’s assisted suicide law through the end of 2002 did so with the organization’s assistance … In 2008 the proportion of C&C PAS [Compassion & Choices Physician Assisted Suicide] deaths significantly increased to 88 percent (53/60) of all reported deaths. And in 2009, 57 of the 59 assisted suicide deaths were Compassion & Choices clients.
Oregon is often cited as an example where there has been no expansion of criteria; however, there is evidence that EAS advocacy organisations intentionally stifle attempts to expand the scope for the reason that it “would send the wrong message to law makers considering similar laws in other states”.17
The polling data used to support the legalisation of EAS does not reflect the complexity of the issue and nor does it capture people’s informed views. When respondents are given information about the more complex issues concerning EAS, many poll respondents change their minds.
EAS and Disability
“Terminal illness can bring with it disabilities which characterise the situation of disabled people who are happy and contributing members of society - such as incontinence or requiring assistance in dressing, bathing, eating, toileting or in other activities of daily living”18.
Advocates of euthanasia often claim that they do not want to endure the ‘loss of dignity’ that they associate with needing assistance for bathing and toileting at the end stages of illness. They suggest that they would ‘prefer to be dead’.
There is no ‘hard line’ that can be drawn between persons with a grievous and irremediable medical condition who experience unbearable suffering, and disabled people. Legalising EAS will send a strong social message to all disabled people, including those whose disabilities are primarily a function of the debilities associated with age: ‘Better dead than disabled.’
Euthanasia and assisted suicide are not part of healthcare and contravene medical ethics.
The current law may not be perfect, but it provides a clear bright line. Moving the bright line of prohibition would create far more problems than it would ever solve. Apart from the intractable problems of consent and coercion, moving that bright line to some new position would merely create new ‘hard cases’ on the boundary.
The promotion of ‘autonomy’ or ‘choice’ for a few is an emaciated foundation on which to introduce a practice that will threaten the choices of many others.
There is no ‘hard line’ that can be drawn between persons with a grievous and irremediable medical condition who experience unbearable suffering, and disabled people. Legalising EAS will send a strong social message to all disabled people, including those whose disabilities are age related: ‘Better dead than disabled.’
In bioethics there is a well-known principle, the Precautionary Principle, which states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm then, in the absence of empirical evidence that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those supporting the action or policy. This means it is incumbent on proponents of change to provide indisputable evidence that any regulatory system would be sufficiently safe.
‘There is no convincing case to be made for a safe EAS regime in New Zealand at this point in time.’ In the current context and given the legally available and ethical alternatives to EAS that already exist, a commitment to those who are most vulnerable because of old age and/or disability demands that New Zealand follow the many other jurisdictions who, in recent years, have reached the conclusion that euthanasia and assisted suicide are quite simply too dangerous to introduce.
For reasons of space, the references have not been included. The full submission, with references, can be found on the website of The Nathaniel Centre, www.nathaniel.org.nz
Editorial: Bioethics, Politics and Slovenly Language: Lessons from History
Bioethics, closely connected as it is with philosophy, is intimately concerned with the intellectual frameworks that shape meaning. For that reason, attention to language is critical when we come to reflect on bioethical issues such as euthanasia/assisted suicide or abortion, both of which are currently topical in New Zealand.
In his work, Politics and the English Language, the famous writer George Orwell writes that the English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his ground breaking 1986 book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide,1 takes Orwell’s observation a step further, identifying and exploring the link between language and the ‘dangerous’ thoughts of the Nazi regime which underpinned the systematic killing of disabled people, Jewish people and others such as the Romani, all deemed to be “unworthy of life”.
Australian psychiatrist Marina Vamos puts it well: "The categorisation of words creates instant bias toward one interpretation or another. Thus, the words we choose not only reflect what we are trying to say, but also control meaning in and of themselves."2
These days, comparisons with what happened in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s are generally avoided in bioethical discussions, labelled as sensationalist and perceived by hearers as providing a ready-made excuse to discredit whatever argument is being made. However, without suggesting that the shocking actions of the Nazi’s can be equated with the practices of euthanasia or abortion, this part of our history contains important lessons about the way in which society’s attitudes to certain practices can be radically changed through an intentional process of ‘moral reframing’ that is intimately linked to the selective use of language, including the use of euphemisms.
There are at least two (closely related) insights that emerge from a close reading of Lifton’s book that are relevant to the contemporary debates we are having about euthanasia and abortion: the way in which, in the 1930’s, certain key figures in Germany used language (i) to remove the psychological and cultural barriers that previously made the holocaust unthinkable and (ii) to medicalise the process in order to blur if not destroy the bright line boundary between healing and killing.
Lifton identifies as crucial a work published in 1920 by two distinguished German professors in which the concept of killing those unworthy of life is professionalised and medicalised as “‘purely a healing treatment’ and a ‘healing work’” (p.46). Thus emerged a notion of “Killing without Killing” (p. 445). Lifton reports that a “leading scholar of the Holocaust told of examining ‘tens of thousands’ of Nazi documents without once encountering the word ‘killing’” (p. 445). For what was done to the Jews there were different words, words that perpetuated the psychological numbing: “the ‘Final Solution’, ‘possible solutions’, ‘evacuation’, ‘transfer’ and ‘resettlement’ … The word ‘selection’ could imply sorting out the healthy from the sick …” (p. 445). Regarding the “mercy killing” of young infants with deformities, Lifton quotes a German doctor he interviewed: “All was to be understood as a responsible medical process, so that … ‘the parents should not have the impression that they themselves were responsible for the death of this child’” (p. 51).
What can we learn from this, and how is it relevant to the current discussions about euthanasia/assisted suicide and abortion that are happening in New Zealand?
David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill provides a classic example of the selective and slovenly use of language to misrepresent what is actually being proposed. In the first instance his preferred term, “assisted dying”, fails to provide clarity about precisely what is being proposed. In the words of one commentator: It “is a vague term and could mean no more than the important service of rearranging the pillows for a dying person”. Secondly, and critically, the term fails to distinguish between ‘euthanasia’ and ‘assisted suicide’, two very different types of life-ending interventions which have vastly different implications and outcomes. Thirdly, the term is grossly inaccurate insofar as Seymour’s Bill does not apply only to persons who are dying – it can be accessed by people with “a grievous and irremediable medical condition … in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability” who consider their suffering intolerable. Referring to euthanasia and assisted suicide as ‘assisted dying’, because it intentionally disguises what is really happening, is a clear case of promoting “killing without killing”.
Meanwhile, David Seymour’s publicly stated refusal to acknowledge the important ethical distinction between intentionally ending a person’s life and the medically accepted ethical practice of withdrawing or withholding futile treatment is an example of his desire to reinforce the link between medicine and the intentional premature death of people. So too is his insistence that euthanasia/assisted suicide are part of medical health care, illustrated by the fact that his Bill puts doctors front and centre as the direct agents for ending life. In contrast, the idea that euthanasia and assisted suicide are part of medical care is rejected by many, including the Scotland Select Committee which, in 2015, found that both supporters and opponents of the Assisted Suicide Bill it was considering acknowledged that the involvement of healthcare professionals in assisted suicide, even if it were legal, would not be “medical treatment”.3
The same behaviours described above for euthanasia are a feature of discussions about abortion. For example, in September 2015, the International Planned Parenthood Federation produced a pamphlet titled How to Report on Abortion, which states up front: “The way abortion is presented in the media can have a major influence on people’s thinking.” The document then advises journalists to use the terms “embryo” or “fetus” rather than “baby” or “unborn baby/child”; “Pregnant woman” rather than “mother” and speak of “a woman’s right to life and health”, rather than the ‘rights’ of the unborn child.4 In defence of its position the document then argues, without reference to evidence, that “the term ‘unborn child’ is a recent anti-abortion invention and a contradiction in terms. Human rights only begin at birth.” Among other things, this assertion ignores a long-standing and enduring social convention that goes back thousands of years, that of speaking of a pregnant woman as ‘being with child’.
The medicalisation of abortion is also, increasingly, a feature of the debate in New Zealand. Thus, for example, Terry Bellamak, National President of ALRANZ Abortion Rights Aotearoa, has spoken about the need to transform abortion from a criminal matter to a health matter. Similarly, the Law Commission of New Zealand has been instructed by the Justice Minister, Andrew Little, to consider “how best to ensure New Zealand’s abortion laws are consistent with treating abortion as a health issue.” Making abortion solely a ‘health’ issue is of particular concern from an ethical and moral perspective because this terminology puts the whole focus on the woman who is pregnant and thereby obscures the fact that two human lives are involved (a fact not lost on well-known abortion advocate Dame Margaret Sparrow who very recently acknowledged that “both [euthanasia and abortion] involve loss of life”5). Once again, the selective use of language and the employment of a reductionist argument serve to avoid the unpalatable but inescapable reality that abortion involves the intentional ending of a human life – yet another example of “killing without killing”.
Attention to our deep seated and spontaneous moral feelings is an integral part of robust ethical deliberation, part of the process of making a properly informed conscientious decision, and a critical ingredient of moral integrity and moral honesty. If the discussion of controversial issues raises such feelings, then we ought to pay attention to these feelings rather than deliberately ignore them. To use language to avoid the stirrings that are part of our deepest selves is to delude ourselves and to delude others. It is to foster ‘denial’ at both the personal and societal level. The deep moral uncomfortableness that is associated with the ending of life that characterises both euthanasia/assisted suicide and abortion should, rather, be seen as an invitation for ethical pause and deeper introspection.
The alternative is becoming all too common – a cheapened form of ethical discussion and a superficial understanding of the complexity of the issues involved. Whatever laws or policies we embrace, we should be absolutely honest and truthful about what is involved, and it is only the honest naming and describing of our actions that will enable that.
If we really want to embrace euthanasia and/or assisted suicide then let’s call them for what they are – the intentional ending of human life – rather than dressing them up as something more palatable. If we really believe that “any reason for an abortion is a good reason”6 and if we really want to enable abortion for any reason, then let’s call abortion for what it is – the intentional ending of a human life – rather than dress it up as something more palatable.
And if, in using honest and clear language, we encounter doubts arising from our deepest moral sensibilities, then let’s stop and think deeply about the wisdom of the laws being proposed.
We must not forget the lessons of history. Slovenly language goes hand in hand with foolish if not dangerous thoughts. Language should be at the service of truth and wisdom rather than being made the slave of personal or political ideologies.
Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre, the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre
1 Lifton, R. J. (1986). The Nazi doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.
2 Vamos, M. "Physician-Assisted Suicide: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say." Australian &
New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 46, no. 2 (2012).
3 See Health and Sport Committee, Stage 1 Report on Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill at http://www.parliament.scot/S4_HealthandSportCommittee/Reports/her15-06w-rev.pdf, paragraph 302.
5 Sparrow, Margaret J. “Euthanasia and abortion”. NZMJ 19 January 2018, Vol 131 No 1468.
6 Terry Bellamak, NZ Herald, 6 April 2018. Accessed 11 April 2018.
The great divide in ethics over the mystery of human life
By Margaret Somerville
This article is available at: https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/the-great-divide-in-ethics-over-the-mystery-of-human-life/20749
Unnatural selection: How animal euthanasia undermines the case for human euthanasia
By Grace Carroll
A key argument by euthanasia proponents is that because we have animal euthanasia to alleviate animal suffering, we should therefore have human euthanasia to alleviate human suffering. The apparent simplicity and consistency of this statement appeals to many, but ultimately does not withstand scrutiny.
An interesting sociological study1 by Professor Arnold Arluke on animal euthanasia unpacks the driving assumption behind euthanasia: that a life with ‘suffering’ is not a life worth living. Euthanasia therefore creates a framework for the subjective calculation of the value of life, which overturns the current basis for care. Because of this, euthanasia opens up the possibility for error, prejudice, and malpractice in the delivery of health and end-of-life care which, in turn, undermines the protection of life.
Calculating the value of life
Taking suffering as a starting point leads to a focus on deficiency. The analysis of deficiency takes a number of forms that are not only health related. These may include dependencies, a lack of capability, an inability to participate in certain activities, or circumstances or conditions of living that are, or are perceived to be, detrimental. As one animal worker put it, “there’s always a reason, whether it has been here too long – dogs go cage crazy or suffer kennel stress or we need their cage to make room for incoming animals.”2
For humans, this could also include the feeling of a loss of dignity, a subjective concept that is, again, based on or related to the experience of deficiencies that affect the psychological state of the person.
The logical way to measure these deficiencies is to compare them with other living beings or to compare with the former level of ability that the living being used to have. This comparison is necessarily competitive; that is, comparing one life in relation to other lives takes place within a context where the available resources to satisfy the needs of care are limited.
For example, many shelter animals are killed “because it was not considered economically feasible to treat them even though they had reversible problems and the cost might be substantial.”3 To enable this, workers viewed the animals as having a market value that compared unfavourably to the market value of other shelter animals. As the animal study notes:
Their value was not to be personal and individual from the worker’s perspective. Rather, they were to be assessed in the light of their competitive attractiveness to potential adopters. This view was nowhere more apparent than in the selection of healthy and wellbehaved animals to be euthanised in order to make room for incoming animals.4 As one worker stated: “Sometimes you want to find any reason, like it has a runny nose.”5
In the world of animal euthanasia, suffering does not only apply to the ‘sick and old’ animals – which are known as “automatic kills” – but also to the ‘happy and healthy’; they too potentially have “to be seen as having lives not worth living”.6
In other words, the value of a life is assessed in comparison, and in competition, with other lives and their needs through a number of variables: for example, the number of kennels available and the demand for them, the amount of care required, whether the animal can be successfully treated, or whether there are more deserving cases.
Two results emerge.
The first is a determination to quantify the degree of suffering. This is based on the level and experience of deficiency and the lack of fulfilment of certain conditions, and the prospects of that in relation to other lives within the competitive efficiency-driven marketplace of care.
The second is that the presence of suffering is then linked to a determination of the value of the life.
The value of life is reduced to being ‘conditional’ because certain requirements have to be fulfilled in order for the life to be seen as feasible and therefore worthwhile to continue. These requirements centre on treatability, curability, and a perceived quality of life. When the value of life is relative in the competitive ‘marketplace’ of needs, deficiency is a matter of degree. In the world of animal euthanasia, suffering does not only apply to the ‘sick and old’ animals – which are known as “automatic kills” – but also to the ‘happy and healthy’; they too potentially have “to be seen as having lives not worth living”.6
A zero tolerance approach to suffering While it is often promoted as such, euthanasia is not an approach to suffering that aims to alleviate it (i.e. make less severe). Rather, ISSUE FIFTY-FOUR APRIL 2018 THE NATHANIEL REPORT 11 the aim is to stop it altogether by bringing about the death of the living being. However, one of the lessons we can take from the routine practice of animal euthanasia is that it does not just stop existing suffering, but also extends to preventing ’future’ or ‘anticipated’ suffering. The idea that emerges among those involved in caring for animals is that it is “better to euthanise healthy strays than to let them ‘suffer’ on the streets.”7 Even the potential for adoption does not necessarily prevent euthanasia; “the animal’s future home, if deemed ‘inappropriate’, would only cause the animal more ‘suffering’.”8
Because the aim of euthanasia is to stop suffering, the aim of seeking to prevent it is simply a logical progression that provides a future-proofed approach to suffering; as they say, prevention is better than cure. This is arguably comparable to the common situation of an older person who finds her or himself unable to live in their own home after a decline in capability or an illness or injury causing hospitalisation; the opportunity to live in a rest home is deemed inappropriate because it does not foreseeably provide a good quality of life, or because it could cause more suffering. Like the animal with a potential but ‘inappropriate’ adopter, the older person facing an inappropriate ‘adoptive’ home is offered euthanasia instead.
How could this be? As disability writer Linda Andre states:9 “Because there was no way to know when the suffering might begin, the only way to ensure no suffering was to kill before it began.
Because you needed to act before suffering began, there was no way to avoid cutting off some non-suffering life. Because of euthanasia it was more acceptable to do that than to risk a minute of suffering. Better to end a life three months too early than one hour too late.”
Because the aim of euthanasia is to stop suffering, the aim of seeking to prevent it is simply a logical progression that provides a future-proofed approach to suffering; as they say, prevention is better than cure.
The impact on care
So, what does this mean for care?
The gnarly dilemma of care changes from assessing and managing the complexities of assisting living to determining whether a life should be ended sooner or later. Euthanasia views the value of life comparatively, competitively, and conditionally, and in terms of deficiency. It is not a case of whether death should happen as an intervention, but when. This signals a dangerous divergence from the current approach to care.
In contrast, the current standard of care asserts that suffering and deficiency does not determine the value of life. It rejects the idea that there are lives unworthy of living and that the worth of a life can be based on subjective determinations of value. Instead, its starting point is the idea that every life has an objective value and worth, a stance which protects that life from error, prejudice, and malpractice. Regardless of the circumstances someone finds themselves in, or whoever they are, the primary aim is to care for the person. While professional skills are focused on the alleviation of suffering, typically through a multi-disciplinary approach, the alleviation should not involve the intentional death of a person. Euthanasia also adversely impacts the carer. By learning to see death as a response to suffering, animal workers were able to shift the focus from their feelings to the animals and their feelings. The “workers distracted themselves from their own discomfort when euthanising. Workers tried to make this experience as ‘good’ as possible for the animals and, in doing so, felt better themselves.”10 This shift reduced the negative impact of euthanasia on the worker by refocusing their attention to doing the best possible job of performing the act of euthanasia. In doing so, it frames the worker’s approach to euthanasia in a particular way – as a matter of providing a quality service instead of whether that service should be provided in the first place. It implicitly reinforces an acceptance of euthanasia as an institutional practice and bypasses the need for the agent providing euthanasia to actively examine the morality of what they are doing.
The practice of euthanasia perpetrates a way of working and an approach to life and care that we don’t want. Rather than providing a rationale for human euthanasia, animal euthanasia actually provides a compelling rationale for why human euthanasia should be outright rejected in the name of a caring inclusive society that refuses to judge some lives as unworthy of life.
Grace Carroll is the Communications Manager for the Care Alliance, and has a background in political science, philosophy, and International Relations.
1 Arnold Arluke, “Managing Emotions in an Animal Shelter,” in Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives, eds. A. Manning and J. Serpell (London: Routledge, 1994), 145-65.
2 Ibid., 154.
3 Ibid., 150.
4 Ibid., 149.
5 Ibid., 152.
6 Ibid., 152.
9 Linda Andre, “Disability Culture meets Euthanasia Culture: Lessons from my cat,” Disability Studies Quarterly 23, no. 3/4 (2003): http://dsq-sds.org/ article/view/435/612. 10 Arluke, 150.
Palliative Care: the Pearl of Great Price
By Katherine Pettus
Katherine Pettus depicts Palliative Care as a ‘subversive’ element in a health system that is focused on ‘cure’. Moving vulnerable and ‘incurable’ patients from the margins to the centre of health practice not only transforms the value of the patients and their families but also allows for the realisation that we are all vulnerable, and that while domination and control are futile, ‘accompaniment’ is transformational.