Jack Havill: No more would die, but fewer would suffer with euthanasia law change

Lawyer Andrew Butler represented Wellington woman Lecretia Seales in the High Court in Wellington.
CAMERON BURNELL/FAIRFAX NZ

Lawyer Andrew Butler represented Wellington woman Lecretia Seales in the High Court in Wellington.

OPINION: 

Surveys consistently show that 70 to 80 per cent of New Zealanders want the law changed to allow doctors to help terminally-ill people end their pain and unbearable suffering.

Why are our parliamentarians so sluggish on the issue?

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand, which believes in end-of-life choice, was pleased to support Wellington woman Lecretia Seales in her brave application to the High Court last week.

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READ MORE: 
* Lecretia Seales' condition deteriorates
* Crown: Seales wants law change, not clarification
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It looks forward, however, to the time when Parliament recognises the wishes of a majority of the public and passes a bill legalising Physician-Assisted Death (PAD).

No more would die, but fewer would suffer.

We regret constant scaremongering by opponents of PAD that the vulnerable would be targeted, because there is absolutely no evidence to support this in the experience of European countries and American states that have adopted enlightened right-to-die legislation.

This is guaranteed in the first word of our title – "voluntary".

Safeguards were written into the End-of-Life Choice Bill proposed by former MP Maryan Street, which unfortunately failed to be drawn from the private member's ballot in the last Parliament.

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It included requirements for proven mental competency of terminally-ill patients, written requests and validation by two doctors legally bound to consider every aspect, including the possibility of coercion.

While elder abuse is regrettably common in New Zealand society, it would be virtually impossible for it to be exercised under stringent controls and safeguards in the proposed legislation.

Vocal opponents also claim unwarranted concern about the welfare of the disabled. The intellectually impaired would not qualify for PAD because they would fail the competency test.

Mentally competent but physically disabled patients whose pain and suffering has become unbearable would be able to exercise an autonomous request for assistance to die in the same way as the terminally ill.

While the Seales case featured references of homicide and abetting suicide it is quite clear to the VESNZ that neither applies to PAD.

It is a compassionate act from a doctor who is actually treating the enormous suffering a patient can have at the time they request help to end it.

This is quite different from killing and irrational suicide and New Zealand human rights legislation dictates that is so.

Palliative and hospice care are good and adequate for most people. However, the evidence produced showed that not all needs are met and Seales is an example of this.

VESNZ says that PAD should be added to our spectrum of treatment as an adjunct to palliative care.

We are currently circulating a petition that is attracting signatures around the country.

It asks the House of Representatives to discuss the issues and we hope it can go before a select committee and some sort of cross-party consensus will emerge.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in February this year that denying terminally ill people help to end their lives breached human rights. In April, a South African judge similarly held that a doctor should be allowed to help a 65-year-old prostate cancer victim end his suffering.

As renowned South African heart surgeon Christiaan Barnard once said: "I have learned from my life in medicine that death is not always the enemy. Often it is good medical treatment. Often it [death] achieves what medicine cannot achieve. It stops suffering,"

Dr Jack Havill, president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of New Zealand, is a retired intensive care specialist with 30 years' experience.

 - The Dominion Post

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