Parallels between Beast and euthanasia

Different public meetings have been in the news this week - one in Whanganui which I didn't attend, the other in Wellington which I had the genuine privilege of chairing.

One involved a group of some 200 Whanganui locals displaying the most base and ugly of mob mentality over the placement of convicted sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson in their community; the other saw more than 400 people listening intently and respectfully as four "experts" explored the pros and cons of state sanctioned euthanasia.

Certainly, the Whanganui gathering generated the most heat but if it was light you were looking for the debate on euthanasia at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday was far more illuminating.

It was organised by Hospice New Zealand which is quite clearly opposed to any "liberalisation" of the laws regarding euthanasia. But that didn't stop them inviting and giving first speaking rights to Labour list MP Maryan Street to explain her End of Life Choice Bill which is waiting to be drawn from the members' ballot at Parliament.

Essentially, the bill would give people with terminal illnesses or mental conditions which they considered made their lives unbearable the right to commit suicide, if necessary with the assistance of designated friends or family or willing health professionals.

Ms Street's motivation is genuine and non-political. She has clearly listened to citizens who have strong views on the issue which, with some regularity, is highlighted by cases in which family members are prosecuted for assisting their terminally ill kin to end their lives. The other side of the debate was headed by Baroness Finlay, a Welsh physician specialising in palliative care who has long been a vocal opponent of euthanasia.

Her motivations, too, were genuine and non-political and both presented their cases with clarity and reason.

It was promoted as a debate but there was no winner or loser on the night ... simply an audience that was better informed.

For my part, I found the Baroness' perspectives more convincing. Refreshingly, she owned to the fact that medicos often make mistakes and that they are often loath to admit them. She also made it clear that clinicians would be placed in a most invidious position should they be required to administer what would effectively be state approved suicide.

Most importantly, the Baroness was prepared to concede that in a perfect world, genuine voluntary euthanasia might be acceptable but as we all know, the world and the people in it are not perfect.

She compellingly argued that the mere provision of the euthanasia option for the ill, the depressed and the desperate will create pressure on some to take an irreversible step they did not really want to.

The very fact that a clinician might discuss the possibility of euthanasia with a patient can create or reinforce feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness and guilt at burdening their families with the duty of continued care and financial commitment.

If we are happy to have a justice system which allows one guilty person to walk free to minimise the chances of the innocent being convicted, I cannot see how we can condone a system that might kill one unwilling patient so that others might exercise their "right to die".

Euthanasia is to my mind the natural reaction to the fear of death and suffering in the same way that the lynch mob mentality in Whanganui is a fear-based response to the heinous crimes of Wilson. In reality, the Beast of Blenheim is a sad and pathetic old man.

And death too, is nothing to fear. It comes to us all sooner or later.

Meanwhile, rather than hasten its arrival maybe we need to care for the terminally ill better and to better prepare ourselves and our loved ones for the challenges of end-of-life experiences.

Finally, when confronted with such a complex conundrum I often think it is best to fall back on basic principles and for my money, whatever your faith or philosophy there is no doubt life is precious.

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