PM's euthanasia claim sparks anger

BRONWYN TORRIE
Last updated 05:00 24/08/2012
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GRAHAME COX/Fairfax NZ
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Angry doctors are appalled at Prime Minister John Key's claims that euthanasia already happens in hospitals.

"We never practise euthanasia; euthanasia is the deliberate ending of life, and is illegal and unethical," Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine chairwoman Sinead Donnelly said.

Mr Key's comments could seriously damage the trust people had in hospital care of the seriously ill, the Wellington doctor said.

Mr Key signalled his broad support for euthanasia - medical assistance to die - during a stint on Newstalk ZB this week.

"If I had terminal cancer, I had a few weeks to live, I was in tremendous amount of pain - if they just effectively wanted to turn off the switch and legalise that by legalising euthanasia, I'd want that."

Hospice New Zealand clinical adviser Sandy Macleod said "euthanasia does not occur in our hospitals, full stop".

Dr Macleod, a palliative care specialist at Christchurch Hospital, said Mr Key's comments were misguided and incorrect.

"As sickness progresses towards death, the focus of care is on minimising suffering. To minimise suffering, it is not necessary to kill the sufferer.

"Often morphine is blamed for people dying, or sedation is blamed for people dying, but the reality is they die of their disease and neither of those medical treatments hastens their death."

Capital & Coast District Health Board head of palliative care Jonathan Adler said there was a lack of understanding about end-of-life choices.

Switching off a life support machine and allowing someone to die of natural causes was not euthanasia, Dr Adler said.

"There's real confusion about what we can and can't do in New Zealand.

"You can have a lot more control at end of life than people believe at the moment."

People could refuse medical treatments, such as being resuscitated or given antibiotics.

"They're not taking something to make their life shorter, they're just saying, 'For whatever reason, for me, and how I see life at the moment, I want to be comfortable, I don't want to have my life prolonged, enough's enough, just keep me comfortable'."

An advanced directive states what medical treatment a person wants in a particular situation, and an advanced-care plan details what they want at the end of life, such as dying at home. Both are created in conjunction with family and medical professionals.

Dr Adler called for better discussion about death and dying between doctors and patients, rather than a giant leap to legalising euthanasia.

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When Mr Key was asked last night about his earlier comments, he said: "I don't think anyone is breaking the law, but in a practical sense I think that [euthanasia] already happens here in New Zealand today.

"Switches get turned off from time to time, don't they?"

Asked if his comments made hospitals seem untrustworthy, he said: "No, I don't think so. Their comments in the paper align exactly with what I meant."

- The Dominion Post

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