How we view, and define, those who choose to end their lives when they are terminally ill and have exhausted all possible treatment options, could help determine whether we support people's right to decide when their lives should end.
An article entitled "Redefining 9/11 Jumpers" was published in the Utah Chronicle last September. It quoted Professor Margaret Battin, who has written many books on cultural and religious views on suicide. She focused on the point that suicide in the US is often defined by the purpose behind the death.
"Consider the man who straps a bomb to his chest and walks into a crowded market. We call him a suicide bomber," Battin said. "Consider another man who falls on a grenade to save his buddy. We call him a hero. Yet the mechanism of death is the same, explosive injuries to the chest. But the intentions are very different."
On September 11, 2001, 2752 died in the World Trade Center collapse. About 200 jumped from the upper floors. The rarely spoken of 9/11 "jumpers", some believe, chose to die by falling rather than being burnt alive or asphyxiated by smoke. Images were captured of the victims in mid-air, such as in AP photographer Richard Drew's "The Falling Man". The pictures sparked a debate on the classification of these deaths.
To Battin, the jumpers do not fit into the category of suicide. While the mechanism of the deaths may typically fall under suicide, Battin said the victims' intentions led her to label them otherwise. And this was the case for all deaths in the attacks (except those of the hijackers). All deaths were ruled to be homicides due to blunt trauma (as opposed to suicides).
The 9/11 "jumpers" were facing death. It was not their choice to die but they and we, as family, friends, members of community and society, could not help them to survive. Battin says: "Do we stress the mechanism of their deaths or the perfectly understandable, reasonable intentions they had in escaping a much worse death by incineration? (To) ask whether the 9/11 jumpers were suicides is to trade on the very negative connotations associated with the term suicide and to imply that they did something wrong or perhaps even sinful."
I believe we need to create a state-authorised mechanism to enable death for those who have been diagnosed with an incurable medical condition that becomes terminal when all state-funded treatments have been exhausted and the person, based on medical knowledge, has less than 12 months to live.
As a society we should support people like Lecretia Seales who in December 2014 sought clarification in the High Court in Wellington on whether it would be an offence under the Crimes Act for her doctor to be able to help her die, and whether a ban on assisted dying contravened her human rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
Lecretia, who Justice Collins deemed was competent and knew what she was asking for, sought to die in a manner she felt preserved her dignity and self respect.
Our High Court decided "the complex legal, philosophical, moral and clinical issues raised by Ms Seales' proceedings can only be addressed by Parliament passing legislation to amend the effect of the Crimes Act."
Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects an individual's autonomy and personal legal rights from actions of the government in Canada. The three types of protection within the section are: the right to life, liberty and security of the person. So, people are free from government actions that limit their ability to make an informed decision based on an imminent and, in their assessment, an intolerable death where their dignity and self respect are severely compromised.
Canada's Crimes Act and ours interpret euthanasia as an offence as it is equated to aiding suicide, which is an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment. I agree with Battin that those who exercise their autonomy in an uncontrollable situation of foreseeable death do not fit into the category of suicide.
Like the 9/11 jumpers, people who choose to exercise their autonomy in expressing their rights as they face foreseeable death should not be seen as doing something wrong or sinful.
People who have a terminal illness and we can't help any more and who want to choose how, when and where they die should be supported to end their lives in dignity and self respect.
To decide is human. To provide the ability to choose legally is Parliament's responsibility in a free society.
• Louisa Wall is the member of Parliament for Manurewa.