Editorial: Right to death- drawing to a conclusion?

Last updated 05:00 05/05/2012

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OPINION: The future masters of technology will have to be lighthearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb. – Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) Canadian communications theorist

AS much as the right to life debate has smouldered, so has the right to death. It is in the news this week with the case of Evans Mott, who has admitted helping his wife die three days after Christmas last year. When 61-year-old is sentenced in the High Court at Auckland later this month his counsel will seek a discharge without conviction.

Rosemary Mott had multiple sclerosis. Her husband was accused of aiding and abetting her suicide by helping her to research euthanasia and acquire equipment and material. The case is the latest in a series in New Zealand where a partner or child has been charged over the death of an ailing loved one.

None has had a higher profile than the death of Joy Martin, whose daughter Lesley wrote To Die Like a Dog, where she outlined her efforts to end her ailing mother's life. Ms Martin subsequently served half of a 15-month jail sentence. Ms Martin has become a leading figure in the push to change the law. Her work is backed by Australian euthanasia advocate Phillip Nitschke, who last year pushed his campaign on the basis that 85% of Australians supported euthanasia.

The pro-life movement argues euthanasia can't be separated from elder abuse. It quotes data that says euthanasia is "out of control" in Holland and people there are frightened to go to hospital as a consequence. Family First NZ warns the right to die will become a duty to die.

It is difficult not to regard those assertions as scaremongering. The fact is doctors and family already make choices to turn off life support systems. Medical intervention can also be credited, if that is the right word, with extending life in cases where the patient's quality of life has, arguably, diminished to almost nil.

Polls suggest the drive to legalise euthanasia is gaining strength. Parliament support for it rose markedly when the issue was last debated. Labour's health spokesperson, Maryan Street, says there is more support for her End of Life Choice private member's bill, which is now in the ballot, "than people realise". Parliament rejected euthanasia 61-29 in 1995, and 60-57 in 2003.

Recent polls taken by the media have also shown an overwhelming sympathy to a law change and the most recent, by the Sunday Star Times reported 85% support for euthanasia from 1000 respondents. Other media polls before that have shown a 70% plus support.

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Ms Street's bill would put some safeguards in place to avoid the sort of issues raised by the pro-life movement. She says it aims to give people the right to "choose how and when they exit this life". Her bill would require the patient to be tested by two physicians to prove they understand what they are asking for.

Doctors would not be compelled to assist and family would be immune from criminal liability if they assist in cases which have cleared the initial hurdle.

Before the Death with Dignity Bill failed in 2003, Michael Laws – who promoted the failed 1995 attempt said "the reality is that Parliament is a very, very conservative beast. On issues of public morality it probably lags 10 to 15 years behind the population." In 2012 Ms Street has good reason to be confident.

- Taranaki Daily News

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