Strong public support for euthanasia

The MP campaigning for the right to die has been buoyed by a poll that shows more than 85 per cent of respondents to a survey supported voluntary euthanasia.

The Sunday Star-Times reader poll of more than 1000 people also found almost three-quarters of people would help a terminally-ill loved one commit suicide, and that support for a law change is highest among men, and those over 60. Labour MP Maryan Street has been working with the Voluntary Euthanasia Society on her End of Life Choice Bill, which would give people the right to "choose how and when they exit this life".

The private members bill will have to be drawn from the ballot to get a hearing, but Street says the reader poll had the highest support she had seen, with most polls getting 75 per cent backing for a law change.

"There is more support out in the community for this than people imagine," Street said. She had seen a change since a 1995 euthanasia vote was lost 61-29, to 60-57 when it was revisited in 2003. "And, nine years on, attitudes have changed again."

Her bill includes three levels of protection. "The first is for the patient themselves. They would have to be tested by two physicians to prove they are of sound mind and understand what they are asking for, and the consequences.

''The next is for doctors, so they are not compelled to assist if it doesn't fit their beliefs, and to protect them from criminal liability if they help. And the third is for a loved one who agrees to assist. People who have been asked by their loved one, should be protected from criminal liability."

Choice would be available to the terminally-ill and those with irrecoverable conditions.

"It's different from other jurisdictions, which only cover terminal illnesses. There would be protection from coercion though, so no-one could pressure someone into making a decision. But you also need confidence your wishes won't be overturned once you have ceased to be competent to argue the point."

A medical law and ethics specialist said New Zealand could benefit from clarifying a grey area around assisting suicide, euthanasia and the rights of patients, doctors and family members. End-of-life issues authority, Otago University bioethics centre Professor Grant Gillett, said the issue was not clear.

The terminally-ill were often unsure about the situation, and wanted to know their options but not go through with any.

"It's a feeling of being socially isolated, a fear they are going to lose control and that the illness is going to take over, that is behind a request."

He said instead of giving in to the desire for euthanasia, it might be better to create a more caring approach to treatment. There was a greater appreciation that doctors shouldn't always pull out all the stops, and that because they could treat certain illnesses they sometimes had to show restraint.

"On the one hand that awareness is developing, and people are aware that issues at the end of life are not simple.

"But on the other, people find it difficult to articulate exactly why they don't feel comfortable about doctors having the power to end people's lives."

Otago University law faculty associate professor Colin Gavaghan, a medical law and ethics specialist, said the law was not black and white, and a change could be made to provide guidance, particularly around assisted suicide. He said that under current legislation there was no such crime as euthanasia. "We are talking about plain old homicide."

But he said it was more common for people to be prosecuted for attempted murder. The next level was assisted suicide, then aiding and abetting suicide, and the final level was withdrawing treatment.

He said he had heard of people being given high morphine doses at the end of their lives by doctors who would have known what they were doing.

"I'd be surprised if that didn't happen everywhere. It would be good if we could at least get to a situation where we could be honest about it."

He said a new law would need to ask who would take the final step.

"Assisted suicide can be seen as safer because the patient has to. But some individuals have degenerative conditions and if the law requires them to take the final step, they might do it sooner rather than later while they still can.

"The thing none of us want, is a nod and a wink culture where we know it goes on behind closed doors. My preference would be an honest culture where you could say, 'I did this, knowing that would happen, and it was the right thing to do'."

Sunday Star Times