Failing the Vulnerable

Tim Owen

This is a re-published YC LIVE' - Young Conservative article. 

The reasoning behind a Bill that will give people the right to "volunteer" for euthanasia or assisted-suicide states that "the motivation behind this Bill is 'compassion'"; a method by which we - as a society - can protect the ‘vulnerable’ from suffering, and forge an autonomy for our ill that they may not have. But, is this really the case? David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill makes the case for it, but this article will examine the case against.

It’s easy to convince an individual of a cause, if you are allowed to frame the matter as you please, less so however, if you maintain a disinterested viewpoint. It is, therefore, important that we first define what the terms ‘euthanasia’ and ‘assisted suicide’ mean objectively, as there seem to be several misconceptions.

Euthanasia is not the withdrawal of life support or medicine. Neither is it an increase in morphine or some other pain relief medicine. Euthanasia is a lethal injection that terminates a patient instantly. As defined by the Bill ‘‘administration by a medical practitioner of a lethal dose of medication to a person to relieve his or her suffering by hastening death”.

A distinction is to be made, too, between euthanasia and "assisted suicide". Euthanasia occurs with an injection administered by a Doctor, while, assisted suicide occurs when the patient administers the toxin themselves.

One question to ask yourself is "whose pain are we really concerned about?"

Frequently, it may not be the pain of the patient that is the issue, but it is the pain of their family watching them suffer that is considered to be more significant. The stories of patients requesting death as they would rather not be a burden on their family members and friends, are numerous. Similarly, the stories of family standing by who could not bear to see their loved-one suffer, and so request euthanasia for them in order to bypass that visceral stage. There is an emerging trend of politicians overseas emphasizing the “burden” that would be placed on the economy, if we were to let disabled or ill humans live. Neither of these are "compassionate" reasons enough to permit death.

When suicide became an issue in this country, we asked ourselves what can we do to stop this? We must surely continue to ask ourselves the exact same question. Why do patients have the desire for euthanasia and assisted-suicide ?

Social pressures or coercion have been proven to be the most common causes. In the European model alone, 431 euthanised-deaths were reported as being non-voluntary in the Netherlands in 2015, while over 30% of euthanised-death in Flanders in 2013 were also non-voluntary. A relevant underlying cause seems to be the conditions in hospices. Patients often describe the experience as being "lonely and miserable", and therefore want to commit suicide in order to escape it. To echo a common justification by supporters, “if I was in a cold dark room, with nobody but the nurses and doctors to visit me I would want to die too”.

It is unfortunate that our patients living in hospices are lonely and miserable. It is all too frightening that this is the reason our people commit suicide: isolation. We must show these patients that they are still valuable; visiting them is a start, while increased funding in palliative care, funding, and tautoko, is the end game. Sadly, our palliative system is losing its status as a safe place for terminally ill patients, and its credibility. We need to improve the quality of our hospices, which includes increasing staff or resources. This means that we need to invest more into our palliative care system. Shifting the scope from providing support, to providing death, will further devalue palliative care.

Supporters also believe that the safeguards in place will be enough to keep vulnerable people safe. In an ideal world, those safeguards may be sufficient, but in practice those safeguards are not as adequate as we think.

The safeguards being suggested are that the person must be (1) 18 years old, (2) have terminal illness or irremediable medical condition with an irreversible decline of a projected 6 months or less to live, (3) and has the ability to understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying.

The second safeguard is the most problematic. Euthanasia and assisted-suicide in New Zealand is proposed to be only accessible to people with a terminal illness that is likely to end in death within 6 months. But the fact is, doctors are not completely certain when a patient will die. What they give is an estimate, that may not accurate, in fact a doctor’s diagnosis is wrong 10-15% of the time; we’ve all heard a seemingly miraculous story of someone being told they will die shortly in a matter of time, and exceeding that time frame by years. Since it is impossible to predict when a patient will die, we cannot give the means to hasten death to patients on account of an inaccurate prognostication. If the diagnosis is wrong there is no way to remedy that mistake - the patient is already deceased.

Another clause suggests a patient must have an “irremediable medical condition”, is in “irreversible decline” and “experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considered tolerable”, but unfortunately, from a legal perspective it is hard to define what exactly would be considered an ‘irremediable medical condition’ in ‘irreversible decline’. As this ambiguity accommodates for any medical condition that has no remedy, including mental disabilities, paralysis, epilepsy, heart conditions or asthma, even people with manageable disabilities could be eligible for euthanasia.

The final clause is "suffering unbearable pain that cannot be relieved in a way that he or she finds tolerable", which again is not clearly defined. Even if there is a way for a patient to at least get rid of the worst pain, under this section they would be eligible for death. Considering there is no precedent by which a court of law can make a judgement means this legislation could be interpreted in any way - and could even account for depression.

Supporters, who often have very good and genuine intent, often believe that patients have a right to choose when they should die. However, this argument could be applied to justify allowing people to commit suicide. If we are giving this right only to patients while restricting these rights to non-patients then an inequality is made.

In order to reduce the inequality, the European model has loosened the knot in legislation providing for non-discrimination by legalizing euthanasia for children, and mental health patients in Belgium (in 2014), and for newborns, and dementia patients in The Netherlands (in 2005, 2014). They have extended in The Netherlands so far as to regulate ‘mobile euthanasia clinics’. A 'death on wheels' approach.

What is concerning for New Zealand, is that this is the third attempt at passing such legislation. The shift in attitudes towards people with a terminal illness and towards elders is sad and miserable in itself. A rejection among my peers - in the younger generation, who are being disproportionately exposed and desensitized to this rhetoric in the media - of the values that we once held, as well as rebellion to the great society that we live in today should be troubling not only for myself, but for everyone.

There was once a time when we valued everyone regardless of age or medical condition but this time has long passed. We now blame the elderly for all of their "mistakes" and how those affects us now. It is this sort of ageism that is leading to more of the elderly beginning to believe that they are a burden on society. I believe, my generation often forgets that it was the older generation that helped to create the society we see today.

Our country currently has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and giving everyone access to suicide will only increase this already high rate. Yet, where is the discussion over why the age group with the highest suicide rate are those over the age of 85? The same for people with medical conditions. Although people infer that they care about patients with terminal illnesses,  we often do very little about it.

We need to seriously consider how we value life. As conservatives, we believe that human life regardless of age or physical condition still holds an innate and intrinsic value that cannot and should not be diminished. We need to show patients, the ill, the disabled, the elderly, and loved-ones that we care about them. We need to administer Life, and Love, not Death.

Young Conservative, is a supporting youth membership of New Conservative. We adhere to the principles and policies for which New Conservative stands, strongly advocating youth to stand for what they believe in, not what they will tolerate.