John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Let's stop on euthanasia's 'orange light'

Lecretia Seales with her husband Matt Vickers on their wedding day. Photo / Nicola Topping
Lecretia Seales with her husband Matt Vickers on their wedding day. Photo / Nicola Topping

The Human Rights Commission has given what it calls the "orange light" to euthanasia, saying Parliament should proceed with caution and only if strict safeguards are in place. I didn't think that was the meaning of an orange light. I thought it meant, stop if you can.

Admittedly that is the effect orange lights are having on Auckland's traffic. Orange has come to mean, "step on it, for you now how long the red phase lasts in this city".

Euthanasia campaigners will be greatly encouraged by the commission's traffic signal. They have plenty of momentum, citing the countries that have lately legalised "assisted dying" (sounds like the pillow being plumped and a damp cloth on a troubled brow). They have a petition before a select committee and David Seymour's bill in the ballot.

They will not be worrying about the cautionary conditions in the commission's submissions to the select committee - a minimum age (18), death likely within 12 months, no coercion or influence, a "cooling off" period, judicial oversight of each case - once a "right to die" is recognised in law, extending its application will be logical and inevitable.

But MPs who look critically at the commission's summary of international jurisprudence on this subject might decide to stop on that orange. In the name of a "right to die" euthanasia would endanger the right not to die.

Members of the select committee will be reading and hearing a great deal about old, frail, disabled or incapacitated people who feel they are a burden to their families, caregivers and society. The fact is, they are a burden and they don't want to be. But nor do they want to die.

Fine, say euthanasia advocates. Nobody is saying they have to die. It's their choice. But just as we respect their choice, so we should respect the decision of those who want to die, or at least to have that choice.

It's not that simple. If it becomes legally possible to die by choice, those who are a burden to their families will wonder if they should. They will say it is their choice but how could we be sure. They might be just thinking of us, though we certainly do not want them to die.

It is disturbing to discover in the commission's paper that judicial thinking appears to have adopted euthanasia's claim that "dignity" for the suffering resides exclusively in a chosen death.

There is in fact dignity in living with pain and incapacity and we should not take it away. Euthanasia would remove the one shred of dignity left to those who need the most personal and intimate care, which is that they cannot help their condition.

If they are given a legal option to die, they would always wonder, do those caring for them respect their choice? Can others see any dignity in their life?

Human rights decisions are usually a balancing exercise, weighing one right against another. The right of those in care to live with dignity has to be balanced by consideration for those who want the right to decide to die if they find themselves suffering with a terminal illness. I think the balancing device can be a practical test. How much does each side need the law to enforce their rights.

Those preferring life in difficult and dependant circumstances need the prohibition on euthanasia for their dignity. Those choosing death do not need the law. Those pressing for a right to choose death need the law to change only so that a doctor can do it, or supply them with the means to do it medically.

But in practice, doctors can do this now under certain conditions. They can turn off life support, they can administer heavy doses of morphine to relieve pain near death knowing the dose is quite likely to be fatal. Matt Vickers, writing in the Herald this week about a 17-year-old assisted death in Belgium, acknowledged that "palliative sedation" (induced coma until death by starvation) is legal in New Zealand.

So what is he campaigning for exactly? His late wife, Lecretia Seales, could have received palliative sedation if her suffering had reached the degree of agony her lawyers postulated in her application to the High Court. So long as doctors act with the intention to relieve pain, not kill, they can accept the likelihood of death.

Intention is important in principle even if it makes no practical difference. It is purely the principle that motivates Vickers, Seymour and many like them. They believe there is an inherent human right to die on request and do not yet dare apply that principle beyond the terminally ill.

This week, though, Vickers wrote, "There is certainly a case for broader laws, making a choice available to people with chronic degenerative illnesses . . ."

Let's not run this orange. Let's stop while we can.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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