by ROWENA OREJANA
The case of Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales, who asked the High Court to allow her the right to die, has “upped the ante” on euthanasia, says a Kiwi-born doctor.
Dr Peter Saunders, the campaign director of the United Kingdom-based Care Not Killing Alliance, made that observation as the New Zealand Parliament called for submissions on a House of Representatives’ investigation on people’s attitudes to a law allowing assisted suicide.
At the NZ Forum on the Family on August 24 at the Life Convention Centre in Auckland, Dr Saunders pointed out
that Justice David Collins had said with respect to Ms Seales’ application that such a complex issue had to be decided in Parliament and not by the courts.
Ms Seales died about the time the decision came out, but what that did is it upped the ante in New Zealand by a
considerable degree, Dr Saunders said.
In the UK, the push for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide had been relentless, he said, with four bills introduced in the past 18 months. But the move was not gaining the same traction as same sex “marriage”.
“In the case of euthanasia, there are other powerful lobby groups as well [than just faith groups], particularly the medical profession and the disability rights group,” he said.
Dr Saunders, whose background is general surgery, said high profile cases tend to generate knee-jerk support.
“It tends to be reflex support that is largely drawn by hard cases that had been very prominent in the media. But when people look at it in more detail and ask the questions, that support drops quite dramatically,” he said.
He cited a Care Alliance poll in the UK that showed 73 per cent were in favour of a bill seeking to legalise assisted suicide. When the same respondents were asked if they would change their view knowing some facts (like every medical college and disability rights group oppose it and, in jurisdictions where the law has been changed there had been an increase in the number of suicides), support for the bill dwindled.
“We found that in response to those statements, the 73 per cent dropped to 43 per cent,” he said.
In the UK, there are four reasons why politicians are against the bill.
The first is public safety. “If you change the law, you inevitably end up putting pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives out of fear of being either a financial or emotional burden upon others. And so it’s been all about protecting the vulnerable people, particularly those who are elderly depressed, or who are disabled or sick,” he said.
The second is that the status quo is okay. He said the law is clearly defined and in cases where there are
justifiable causes, few end up in jail. “The best laws are those that give clearcut boundaries. We say, you must not travel above 100km/h on the highway.
We don’t say it’s 100km/h unless you’ve got a sick child or you’re late for a really important appointment,” he said. “It’s clear. Then, we deal with cases of those, after proper investigation, that have legitimate excuse.”
He said there are limits to personal freedom. “We are not entitled to the freedoms which undermine the reasonable freedoms of others. Changing the law for a small group of determined people actually removes legal protection from a much wider group of vulnerable people who then become prey to those with an interest in their deaths,” he stressed.
The third reason, he said, is when there is good palliative care, requests for assisted deaths are rare. The fourth is the fact that opposition comes from a lot of different groups.
Dr Saunders said legalising physician assisted suicide is not a slippery slope but more of a “mission creep”, or an “incremental extension”.
“Sympathetic doctors will try to widen it. If you think about their main arguments, choice and compassion, those
could apply to a wide range of people.”
He said people would put value on human life, whether or not it is still financially or emotionally viable.
“It’s the relative costs of chemotherapy, palliative care and lethal drugs. Is that a temptation that we want to put in front of our legislators?” he asked.
• Parliament has allowed until February 1, 2016, for submissions to be made on whether or not to allow assisted suicide in New Zealand.