Euthanasia debate: 'Why can't I have the option of assisted dying?'
Former President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Helen Kelly was diagnosed with lung cancer on February 18 last year. She shares her thoughts on assisted dying as part of Stuff's series.
I have made my submission to the Health Select Committee which is considering the issue of assisted dying following the brave stand by Lecretia Seales. It's weird to make a submission like that when you are actually dying – very relevant and confronting. It makes you ask: "What do I want for my death?"
It's an important question that all of us should ask at some stage.
I could let myself die now. I could refuse treatment quite lawfully and die rather quickly. Instead I am trying to live, which is actually what most terminally ill people want – we don't actually want to die – but if we have to then we want to do it peacefully and some of us may want tools to help when it is not going to happen naturally.
I went to a talk by the author of the book Being Mortal (Atul Gawande) when he was in New Zealand. The book itself is very important and it notes that people have changed from the early 1900s when they accepted they were mortal as death was all around them, to the situation today where we all think we are immortal and doctors can fix everything. That is until they can't and we are sick and confused about there being nothing to fix us.
I am not sure how Atul feels about assisted dying but he talks about quality living and how making a decision regarding any treatment offered to you based on what you want to achieve from the rest of your life is important. He tells stories of where the treatment is worse than the cure and how people can make choices about that treatment based on their own priorities, and he also talks about how good palliative care can be and that is very interesting – especially to someone ill like me. Importantly he talks about how aged care could offer such better living than it does now (something we must pay attention to as a country). None of this is exclusive.
We are bad at talking about death and this has resulted, in my view, in a lack of discussion about dying. I read dying being described as a social event as much as a physical one and I really like that description. It's true. There is as much subtle saying goodbye, catching up with old mates, caring that little bit extra for each other that in my house we have named the constant interaction as the "cancer party".
While there is lots of awful physical stuff going on, the time I have been given to deal with the social stuff is precious and important to me and I think to others. Dying slowly, I think has a big advantage. But at some point that "party" will have to end and the tough social and physical bit will need to be addressed.
What do I want? Why can't I continue to choose treatments that allow me to consider my own priorities? If I am at the point where those priorities can no longer be maintained and all I have left is the painful dying bit, why can't I have the option of assisted dying, given the alternative is to turn up the morphine and hope? A natural death is out of the question.
I accept this issue has problems and getting the law right is important so that people make genuine choices and elderly people are not pressured and so on, but the reality is that often these choices are not genuinely made by patients. As the elderly get less and less able, they have fewer and fewer choices and that is precisely the reason the elderly may want access to this.
I hope the Committee looks at this through the eyes of a dying person and their family. No family wants anyone to suffer and many people would not want to go on living in a state where they are unable to live a reasonable life with genuine choices. It's time for New Zealand to make this option available in a regulated fashion.
You can make an online public submission to the Health Select Committee at parliament.nz.
Join us at stuff.co.nz on Wednesday at 12.30pm for a live chat with Lecretia Seales' husband Matt Vickers, and then at 1.30pm with Care Alliance spokesman Matthew Jansen.