Ann David: Intention is the key in debate on assisted death

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An emotional Evans Mott talks to media outside the High Court at Auckland after being discharged without conviction. Photo / NZ Herald
An emotional Evans Mott talks to media outside the High Court at Auckland after being discharged without conviction. Photo / NZ Herald

Anyone who can understand the difference between rape and lovemaking can understand the difference between killing and compassionate assistance to die.

The two actions might even look a bit similar but the intention of the participants is entirely different.

Intention is something the law understands very well: it is the litmus test in cases ranging from the gravity of murder to the comparative lightness of contractual breach. Justice Patricia Courtney must have made it a primary consideration in her decision to acquit Evans Mott of the crime of assisted suicide.

Obviously, Mr Mott is no criminal. He is simply a loving husband who defied the law by refusing to turn his back on his wife in her hour of greatest need.

He helped her to die at her express request because her degenerative disease had no cure, no possibility of remission or reversal and was increasingly robbing her of all she associated with being human.

Her all-too-foreseeable and inevitable death held only the prospect of intensifying, protracted pain, terror, anguish and further dehumanisation in her own eyes. The medical profession is forbidden by law to help in such circumstances. Who to turn to? A loving husband!

The police were obliged to prosecute because, as it stands, the law has no way of distinguishing good intent from evil intent unless court proceedings take place. If voluntary euthanasia had been legalised before Mrs Mott's suicide there could have been several different outcomes from this very sad story. Firstly, Mrs Mott would undoubtedly have availed herself of legal assistance to die rather than have faced the terrifying, lonely ordeal of self-inflicted death. Secondly, her grieving husband would not have had to face prosecution for a non-crime because the police would have classified the case as benign, not malignant. Finally, a lesser consideration but still a worthwhile one, the taxpayer would not have had to pay for a court case that should never have been held.

Through all this, assisted suicide does need to remain a crime, even though suicide itself is perfectly legal. There could be many circumstances where assistance to commit suicide springs from malevolent rather than benevolent intent. The police and our courts need to be able to detect and punish such malevolence.

The Hon Maryan Street has an End of Life Choice Bill in the ballot. It aims to pre-classify those eligible for assistance to die on grounds of the irreversibility of the direst of medical predicaments from those whose fortunes could be turned around, for example, by the possibility of cure or alleviation or by relief from oppressing circumstances. If such a distinction can be recognised in law, then the law could proactively reflect what the human heart already understands: compassion.

If Ms Street's bill is drawn from the ballot, MPs will have the chance to support it or to reject it. If they opt for the safe and spineless strategy of status quo, we can expect more and cases like that of Evans Mott before the courts. To an upright citizen, the law and its effects are powerful inhibitors against iniquity. But when the law is clearly an ass, citizens will defy it.

* Ann David is a resident of Picton, a businesswoman and member of New Zealand's Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

- NZ Herald

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