Why I support Euthanasia

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Euthanasia-TouchscreenW_rdax_384x216My father died last week. He was a man of huge intellect with a staunch socialist philosophy that he put to great use as a provincial lawyer, school board member, NGO trustee, sports club committee member, community volunteer etcetera. He didn’t make nearly as much money as one with a formidable reputation in the legal profession should have, as he was constantly helping people for free, and he had to retire his partnership early due to a triple heart bi-pass in 1977. It was, however, one of the largest funerals seen in Napier for a while as many came to pay their respects to a man of great integrity.

Even though I often sought his advice and council on a wide range of matters and, of course, loved him dearly, for me the great relief is that he died relatively quickly and in very little pain: and with all his faculties. There would have been no greater tragedy than for him to be dribbling into his dinner because his brain had exited a body that had lived on – and been kept alive – way past its use-by date.

We all either have elderly relatives, or know friends who have, who are afflicted with the curse of dementia, and we all have stories about people we know who have suffered terribly slow and painful deaths. To me, dementia is dreadful, and the way medical science has worked to extend lives that nature (not accident or infection) has determined should end, comes with its own ethical and moral dilemma.

I don’t buy the argument that people who have lost their marbles are happy. No one likes to think that this is the way they will end their days; incontinent, not knowing friends or family. Like many I know, I have verbal contracts with a number of good mates who will end my life if my wits desert me or my pain becomes unbearable and I am not in a position to do something about it. In fact, the Minister who presided at my father’s funeral said that he has a similar pact with his wife. I asked about the consequences, and he said that he would happily go to jail rather than see his wife of 50 years suffer the humiliation of a slow painful death without dignity.

And this is the dilemma. I have no doubt that medical professionals working in the palliative care sector do make decisions “in the best interests of the patient’s comfort”, but what about those dying without dignity at home, or in a hospital that doesn’t have a palliative care ward? As our population ages, I believe that we will see many more husbands, wives and friends fulfilling the type of contract I have with my mates. We will see a much greater incidence of mercy killings and suicides as the elderly determine how they will end their days – and with whom.

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I remember five years ago reading about an eighty year-old eminent English Professor who euthanized his terminally ill wife and then ended his own life. He left a note saying that he had achieved everything that he had always wanted to during his life; that he loved his wife of over 50 years more than anything in the world, and that he couldn’t bear to see her in such pain and did not want to live without her. I remember thinking ‘I get that’.

All this tosses up huge ethical, moral, religious, legislative and legal questions as we continue to deal with the consequences of a demographic slide toward an aged population that medical science is determined to keep alive for longer and longer; despite the wishes of the patient and their family.

How will the courts deal with an 85 year old man who has, in effect, murdered his terminally ill wife? How will the catholic church deal with the funeral of the woman who has euthanized her husband and then taken her own life? How will parliament deal with a growing constituency that demands the right, under certain circumstances, to determine their own fate? And how will those who are young, fit and healthy for a brief moment in time, judge their parents and grandparents who have made a decision in love, but seen as selfish by those who do not have the maturity or empathy to understand? Personally, I don’t have the answers. But they are questions to issues that we are going to be forced to confront before too long.

9 COMMENTS

  1. This is the wrong question to ask. Euthanasia has been going on quietly for a very long time. Withdrawal of life prolonging treatment exhibits – in most cases – no moral differences from actively ending a person’s life at their request. Consider the Rau Williams case that everyone seems to have forgotten about.

    Keeping people alive can be very expensive. The average person uses most of the medical resources they are ever going to use in the last few years of their life. Euthanasia is quite cheap in comparison.

    Now consider those financial facts in view of the constant and somewhat successful right wing pressure to cut funding for public health care, and you do the math. There’s nothing those people wouldn’t stoop to to save a buck, including depriving the elderly and infirm of their lives.

  2. Firstly, my condolences for the loss of your father. Secondly, I largely agree with Tom, especially his last sentence; “There’s nothing those people wouldn’t stoop to to save a buck, including depriving the elderly and infirm of their lives.”

    In the seventies it was possible to see many liberal progressive ideas as an extension of socialism, but that is not reliably the case now. As the economic divide deepens, what is sold to us as enlightened middle class choice readily turns into something coercive for the working class and the poor.

    It is one thing for the law to be applied compassionately where someone has taken someone else’s life at their request, due to debilitating illness, and quite another to legalise euthanasia. No amount of safe guards would prevent conditions from arising whereby defenceless people would be pressured into taking that option out of a sense of obligation rather than genuine, considered desire.

  3. Sorry for your lose Stuart.

    I disagree with Euthanasia, as I do not trust the state. We have seen the state being used over and over to the ends of a slave worshiping few. And my fear is a radical liberal group who decide on the finical value of an individual and decide termination is in the best interest of society, or the Corporate bottom line.

    Coupled with this is hard worn distrust of Doctors. If you can get together 20 people in a room, who don’t so nightmare story about a Doctor – then I’ll show you a live Moa. The medical profession has worked hand in hand with some of the most vicious governments this planet has ever seen. They need to win the trust of society – they don’t have that. Look how many people would rather go to alternative treatment rather than deal with a doctor.

    Thanks for raising the topic Stuart.

    • Adam, I kind of agree with you about mistrusting doctors, but I think rather than mistrusting doctors, we should mistrust capitalism. Capitalism is what makes them crooked and capitalism makes them pawns for multinational corporations.
      I was quite shocked when I read this blog post here…it looks at doctor’s views on the best way to die.

    • One thing the euthanasia debate does not need is shallow, knee-jerk sound-bites from politicians on the comeback trail. Decisions about when to die are best kept away from the public arena (or bearpit). Instead, they should be made by the individual concerned, with the advice of ethical clinicians (no accountants anywhere nearby), and “concerned” (or self-interested) family kept at bay.

      • The point you have missed Michael is that politicians must become involved in the debate because it is them (like it or not) who will be responsible for changing the law that allows individuals to make the choices discussed.

  4. My sincere condolences.

    What I find interesting are the subjects of euthanasia and people’s mistrust of the health care system.

    I’ve heard from many elderly folks the sentiment along the lines of “best keep away from the hospital unless you want to come out in a box” – the reasoning behind that belief fascinates me. For my elderly father I believe it perhaps may’ve been influenced by the death of two of his friends in hospital in for surgery over the years (both elderly), his skepticism of one dying by falling out of bed and the other dying as a result of surgery on his finger. Both immigrants like him (faced regular racism back then, he hints that may be an influence). My mother also shares this distrustful sentiment of the health care system, strange as both parents have been patients many times without any problems, indeed that care contributed to lengthening their lives.

    Also find these elderly folks believe since they’ve stopped working and are collecting superannuation, the state would be glad to get rid of them.

    Even find distrust of the health care system in songs, like the song “Sea Man” by Don McLean, the lines: …and the butchers, called doctors, leave you worse than you are … And the doctors will come and say he’s afraid and they’ll ruin this man and destroy what he made. A song about a man living by the sea away from the rat race, based on a true story.

    Then there’s the case of Maori not receiving the same treatment as non-Maori in health care, I believe this is the subject of research at the moment, but during the debate on racism on The Vote that was an argument presented as a result potentially stemming from racism.

    I think euthanasia may not settle well with many/some because of its past. After all last century there were some eugenics proponents who advocated for it and there was a particularly vile and inhumane regime that used it to deal with those they considered “undesirable”. Those with irresponsible and malevolent intentions in the past who promoted or used it may have given it a bad reputation.

    I personally believe for those who are extremely ill there’s a responsibility on the part of society to ensure their comfort, care and wellbeing. Having a socially responsible government greatly helps for a start, unlike one that indulges in cut-backs. Thanks to an irresponsible government, perfectly healthy, promising young folks can be reduced to suicide or suffering pain comparable to those extremely ill.

    Notice in these times record numbers on anti-depressants, speaks volumes of the system we live in. Years ago I was depressed, I know why – due to hardship. Sought help, was prescribed an antidepressant, condition worsened – I was prone to suicide. Situation screwed up my education and took me years to recover, even today still scarred by the experience. When you’re of modest means, such setbacks do a lot of damage. Find in recent years that medication was unsuitable for adolescents due to the suicide risk. I suppose these things can be expected from an empowered and unaccountable corporate sector, thanks GSK. Through the darkness however discovered a new appreciation of life, became a more understanding person.

    Also notice particularly in recent years many medical centres being under staffed with a high turnover of GP’s coming and going. There’s no longer that long term doctor-patient relationship. Each GP liberally prescribing more medications or greater doses, patients complaining about adverse effects – not the best arrangement.

  5. “It is one thing for the law to be applied compassionately where someone has taken someone else’s life at their request, due to debilitating illness, and quite another to legalise euthanasia.”

    No. It is exactly the same thing. A person who has assisted another to end their own life, with that person’s full informed consent, is not a criminal; no victim, no crime. If this is acknowledged in law, even just by a lack of a charge that they can be convicted of, then euthanasia is legalised. So it should be.

    As for the claim that formalized euthenasia would be abused to bully people into giving consent to die, this is nothing but a slippery slope fallacy. We accept that someone is allowed to cut our bodies open in an operation, or medicate us with pills – either of which come with risks of complications and death – as long as they have our informed consent. This need to consent could be abused to deny as elderly person an expensive operation or medication, and yet no one is demanding that the withdrawing consent to such things should be illegal to prevent such abuse. Why is it different when they withdraw their consent to be kept alive?

    Clinging to length of life at the expense of qualify of life is not a sign of a love and appreciation for life, but a sign of an obsessive, and pathological fear of death. Assisting another to die when they feel their time has come is not a crime, it is much-lacking spiritual service in our society. Helping their loved ones accept that choice to die is part and parcel of that service.

  6. my condolences to you over the loss of your father.

    12 yrs ago my father had a massive stroke while at work as a welder.

    he was unconciousness in hospital.
    essientially he had no chance of any recovery and the decision was taken to remove food and liquid. he lasted for about a week.

    at the time the family and i wanted to be more pro-active in easing the suffering.

    since then i have heard a few interesting discussions; one was last weekend on RNZ, chris laidlaw’s show, he had a palliative care nurse followed by a pro euthanasia doctor.

    a few ideas have stayed with me.
    in the case of my father, whos suffering were we wanting to ease? his or ours?

    the nurse in lailaw’s discussion suggested that perhaps lawyers could be trained to administer the euthanasia rather than a health professional.

    in an earlier discussion the comment was made that life quality *seemed* to be diminished. this to me raised a glimmer of doubt.

    i am not a religious person and i do have a feeling that there is something fundamentally sacred about life.

    in short my views on this have turned 180 degrees.

    be wary of being certain about anything. only two can be certain the fully enlightened and the fool.

    stuart, thank-you for raising this issue.

    kia kaha, brother.

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