Say what you like about our Government but it does have a strange set of priorities. Mention stripping folk of basic rights in order to strengthen institutional power, and its enthusiasm and passion seems unconfined. Bring up anything seeking to boost personal autonomy or individual freedoms and there's a sudden stampede towards the too-hard basket. Yes, this lot might be great in a fire sale. But social responsibility? You'd have to say, clueless.
Take the pedestrian approach towards legalising assisted death, or euthanasia in New Zealand. Twice previously proposals have been shot down by our Parliamentarians, once in 1995, and again by just three votes in 2003. Since then prime minister John Key has spoken in support of a review but has been all talk and no action. Despite polls suggesting nearly three-quarters of Kiwis are supportive of change, he appears to have no stomach for taking a lead.
Now, thankfully, Labour MP Maryan Street is promising to introduce a private member's bill. It's just a pity she's had to act where the Government has not, and that, for all her hard work and good intent, her "End of Life Choice" bill is destined to languish in the ballot until it's selected by chance. Like a Lotto ball. For a proposal that seeks to address dignity in death; that's based on compassion, humanity and respect, it is a scandalous neglect of duty.
Hopefully, though, if Street's bill is selected for debate, even the Government will throw its support behind the changes. Far too many people are continuing to suffer horrible and degrading deaths simply because of an outdated decree. Others are choosing to break the law. An elderly Nelson couple took their own lives last year; a Dunedin man was sentenced to home detention for helping his terminally-ill mother die. Lesley Martin went to jail.
For another Nelson man, Don Grant, whose wife Yoka De Houwer has a rare form of cancer and wants to choose when she'll die, the changes are long overdue. "We're really hoping we can get something done," he said. "It may not come in time for us, but we think if you're terminally ill in New Zealand you don't get good quality of life. Often you starve to death because they remove food and fluids, and just drug you up with morphine until you waste away, and that can take more than a week."
Most of us, having reached adulthood, will have some experience of this. My mother died in the late 90s from a secondary cancer that attacked her brain. Eventually, she lay in hospital in a coma for a week; a vegetable, until she was "denied fluids" - a euphemism for killing her. Without water her kidneys packed up; her body was unable to break down toxins and she was effectively poisoned to death. This is what anti-euthanasia campaigners like to call "palliative care".
Having watched a couple of other family members die from cancer, I know now she was one of the lucky ones. It's a cruel and perverse state of affairs when we can force people to endure a painful and ugly death, despite having the means and insight to assist with a voluntary and dignified exit. No wonder so many continue to flout the law, motivated not by malice but by love and compassion. No wonder Britain has now moved a step closer to legalising assisted dying.
Key often likes to dismiss social issues as being not terribly relevant or pressing. This isn't one of those examples. Terminally ill people aren't known for creating a clamour. They don't march in the street, or occupy offices or picket the steps of Parliament. Generally speaking, they just get on with the business of dying; sometimes horribly. That the National-led government will leave such an important matter to chance tells you all you need to know about their priorities.
Perhaps, if there was some money to be made from it, they might consider it more closely.
» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.
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