Dancing with death

There is an experience I share with many New Zealanders which all of us would rather not have had.

I have been on the other end of a conversation with a suicidal person.

It was a terrifying experience, and whenever it is brought to mind I feel the fear it induced as if it were yesterday.

And it was brought to mind again this week, by the arrest of euthanasia activists which ACT MP David Seymour called “politically motivated”.

I have written about this topic many times before. I have written about watching my tetraplegic grandfather die with dignity (and no pill), I have written about the trends and research we see from other countries where assisted suicide is legal, I have written about individual rights and how they must be balanced against the needs of a society.

For all of the reasons I’ve previously outlined, I oppose assisted suicide being introduced in New Zealand. But perhaps the most real reason for my opposition is the personal one that will follow.

You see, I am terrified of this law. I know its advocates say the checks and balances it includes will  keep us all safe. But they don’t. We all know that Belgium, Holland and Oregon started out with stringent laws just like the ones we want in New Zealand.

And we all know their laws are now so broad as to include all sorts of people we never would have dreamed of killing before – babies, the elderly with dementia, and those who are depressed.

It is that last category that makes me feel scared. And the more I read the more horrified I grow. Oregon’s law specifically requires doctors to refer clients whom they suspect to be depressed on to  a psychiatrist before offering assisted suicide. Initially, almost half of those wanting to die were referred for psychological help, according to Oregon Health Division reports. Its recent annual report shows that while more people demand the right to die, only about 3 per cent are referred for psychological help.

It gets worse. The protections about doctors keeping an eye out for coercion, or refusing patients that didn’t fit the criteria were introduced in Holland’s original law. Now mobile euthanasia units travel the country and stop at the homes of those whose own doctors have refused their request to die. You can read about it on the BBC website if you wish. That means people can essentially pick and choose the doctor most likely to give them what they want at that particular point in time.

Even the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand openly admits in its submission to the Health Select Committee looking into assisted suicide that the “slippery slope” is real. The thing it, the organisation just doesn’t care.

It quite rightly argues (for an organisation with its worldview), that ethics change, and once we set individual choice about the public good we have very little grounds to oppose the expansion of death to any and all who want it at a particular point in time. How strange it is then that they ever wasted resources defending the protections outlined in the law if they don’t believe these will hold.

The truth is, what we are doing with this law is enormous. We are swapping a society in which the government is fundamentally charged with protecting the life of its citizens for one in which it is not.

And that is heart-stopping for people like me who have researched the issue and been on the other end of conversations beyond imagination.

But I am only one among many, many Kiwis who get such calls every single day from friends, relatives and acquaintances who are in the throes of a temporary belief that life has lost its worth. And I am altogether convinced by the evidence that we are now considering a law that will lead to a society in which temporary beliefs can all too easily become permanent consequences.

Is this fear mongering, as the proponents of the bill claim? Absolutely, because what we are thinking of doing is terrifying. Anyone who dances with death and doesn’t think it is dangerous shouldn’t be making laws.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz

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