Legal euthanasia kills justice for all

justice scales As the spokesperson of a Catholic bioethics centre, there are some who discount my message because of my religious affiliation rather than on the basis of its merits. It’s a classic case of ‘playing the man instead of the ball’.

As two commenters noted in response to comments I recently made about the dangers of legalising euthanasia: “I am sick of the religious trying to force their narrow views on society.” “Dictate what you like to your own flock, stay the hell out of the affairs of people who want nothing to do with your beliefs.” The point being made by these commenters is that religion should have nothing to do with the debate about euthanasia.

 

While I think Christians have as much right to express their views as any other New Zealander I am, in all honesty, not interested in imposing my religious views on anyone. Actually, with respect to euthanasia, my own personal view is irrelevant. But so, I would argue, is every other person’s personal view. Whether or not people are personally in favour of, or opposed to, euthanasia is ultimately beside the point. To ask this question, as a recent Sunday Star Times poll did, is to ask the wrong question.

The crucial question is whether euthanasia can be safely implemented in the current context. Maryan Street, MP, glibly asserts that it can while ignoring overseas evidence that says otherwise. I and many other New Zealanders of no religious persuasion believe differently. Our argument centres on safety and protection of those who are vulnerable. As another commenter puts it: “No-one's trying to force their religion down your throat so take a deep breath, try and consider the argument in a rational manner.”

That the dangers of euthanasia are real is readily acknowledged by those wanting to legalise it. It explains why a lot of emphasis is placed on building in so-called safeguards. It has also been admitted by Maryan Street in a public debate that no amount of safeguards can stop the law being abused. So the argument about dangers cannot be dismissed as the rantings of “meddling god-botherers.”

I recently met Sean Davison who was convicted of assisting in the suicide of his mother. He strikes me as a genuine warm person who had the courage to follow his beliefs. It is apparent he did not make his decision lightly and that he thought long and hard about his action. But there will no longer be any need for the same degree of soul-searching if euthanasia were to become legal. It will become relatively easy for people to succumb to more base motives. Legalising euthanasia is fraught with possibilities of abuse for those who are elderly, disabled or dying. These abuses will be easily disguised and hard to identify or prove.

In addition, in a society that is increasingly characterised by the isolation of the elderly, growing pressure on health care resources and growing numbers of elderly people requiring expensive care, the legalising of euthanasia will contribute to those who are at the end of life, and those who are disabled, increasingly feeling they are a burden. These persons will feel as if they have to justify their existence to the rest of us. It is what one commentator has called “the distant and off-handed dismissal of the quality of life of certain people.” No law can offer safeguards against this. The right to die will quickly become the duty to die.

We should not underestimate, even for a moment, the subtle ways, conscious and unconscious, families have of putting pressure on their own to relieve their burden of care – both emotional and financial. Those working with the dying know this only too well. The very act of making euthanasia legal will remove the most effective barrier we currently have against such abuses.

Granted, such pressures might not matter for a handful of strong-minded people firmly resolved to end their lives. But most people at the end of life aren’t like that. They are vulnerable and ambivalent, wavering between hopelessness and hope and worrying about becoming a burden. In which case, large numbers of people may well find themselves on a course about which they are less than whole-hearted but one to which they can see no other alternative.

This is not free choice but a lack of choice. Legalising euthanasia will end up being an illusory choice for far greater numbers of persons than the few who will ever choose to exercise a legal right to be killed.

It is the role of the law in a democratic society to ensure the interests of the majority are not prejudiced by choices granted to a few.

John Kleinsman is the director of The Nathaniel Centre

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Star Times, May 6, 2012