Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Is euthanasia for the living or the dying?

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The chances are slim of finding a doctor to assist suicide. Photo / Thinkstock
The chances are slim of finding a doctor to assist suicide. Photo / Thinkstock

It's all very well signing up to voluntary euthanasia, but who's going to administer all these lethal injections?

Who's going to get them to sip the glass of water so they can swallow their "peaceful pills" so they can "quietly slip away", as Nelson Exit International member Yoka De Houwer, who has brain and spinal cancer, puts it.

That's the question nobody wants to address.

The NZ Medical Association is opposed to voluntary euthanasia, though supports the concept of death with dignity and access to appropriate palliative care.

So the chances are slim of finding a doctor to assist suicide.

This highly contentious, deeply personal issue is back because Labour MP Maryan Street has a member's bill almost ready for the ballot.

Street wants, among other things, to protect from prosecution family members and health professionals, who've been directed, by those who still have their wits about them, to put them out of their misery.

To euthanise them, like we would a much-loved family dog or cat.

And there's much to be said for that argument. We don't watch our pets suffer pain. A vet, or animal owner is rightly prosecuted if they let animals die in agony, so why shouldn't we let our elderly parents, or terminally ill cancer patients, for example, die with dignity, without pain, with a quick injection while we hold them close?

But with palliative care now at its most sophisticated, just how necessary is it for the dying to be in pain?

I've learned a lot about death these past months - up close and personal.

My mother, who was in her 91st year and was ready to say goodbye, died on Anzac Day, but she did not go gentle into that good night. My brothers and I sat by her bed for four days while she died the way she lived - fighting, obstinate, spirited.

A devout Anglican, Mum chose to die in her time - one hour after receiving the last rites and forgiveness.

We reckon she deliberately held on until Anzac Day because it was, for Patricia Coddington, NZAF Regt No. W3133, Women's Air Leader WWII 1939-1945, a particularly special day.

But as I watched her, I saw that like birth, death is hard work. It's nothing like the Stella Artois advertisement. Cheyne-Stokes breathing, what the dying do near the end, is what my mother did for two days and a night. But she wasn't in pain, she was just dying.

And even though she was deeply unconscious, I have no doubt she knew we were there.

When it was time, she just stopped breathing, much like when a baby is born and starts breathing. Mum peacefully took a couple of last breaths. This was death with dignity.

More than once we compared the waiting to sitting around dozing and waiting for a baby to be born.

And why shouldn't it be?

But now we want to sanitise death. Is this really for the person dying, or is it in truth for those still living?

We want designer deaths, to go with designer births - just like the convenient caesareans busy women book in their diaries, so their schedules are not unduly interrupted. And so much cleaner - all those hours, sometimes days, of groaning and waiting for baby, eliminated with a quick injection which does away with the pain and fuss.

So it can be with death.

I have Mum's "Advance Directive" on Auckland Voluntary Euthanasia Society letterhead, signed in 2003 and witnessed before a Rotorua Justice of the Peace. It states if she suffers from "one or more of the conditions mentioned in the schedule" she is not to be "subjected to any medical intervention or treatment aimed at prolonging or sustaining my life".

One of the conditions listed in the schedule is "senile or pre-senile dementia".

Do these people know what they're doing? Mum officially had dementia in 2007.

In the five years after that she sold a house in Ngongotaha, moved to Martinborough and bought another house, created a beautiful garden, brought joy to 17 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, made hundreds of new friends and kept in touch with old ones. Sure, she degenerated markedly, and as her main carer, at times it was difficult for both of us.

I was her enduring power of attorney and as such, if Street's legislation is passed, people like me could - should - follow her wishes and stop all medications which kept her able to keep mobile and enjoy life.

That way, according to people like Mum, they wouldn't be a burden on the next generation.

But who carries the burden of guilt for prematurely ending the life of someone like Mum, who decided they should die like a dog if they get to the stage where they can't remember their daughter's name?

Who are you gonna call?

- NZ Herald

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