It cuts to the heart of the issue. But it’s the question that euthanasia advocates refuse to answer. They argue that assisted suicide is the only “solution” for a small group of dying New Zealanders who suffer untreatable pain. But the critical question is this. If legalising assisted suicide increases risk for a large number of other vulnerable kiwis, is it still an acceptable solution?
Palliative care is effective in relieving pain and suffering for the vast majority of those dying with a terminal illness. But for a tiny minority it is not. On TVNZ’s Q&A programme last week the Hon Alfred Ngaro noted the experience of a leading palliative care specialist. Over a period of forty years she had treated 12,000 patients. In only twelve cases was palliative care ineffective at relieving pain.
The interviewer Jack Tame quickly responded with the obvious question – yes but why should we not give those twelve people the option of assisted suicide? It is a question which encapsulates the strongest argument for those advocating for the new End of Life Choice Act. When palliative care isn’t enough, shouldn’t euthanasia be an option?
But it is a question with a very narrow vision. It ignores the wider and more critical question. Should we make changes to “benefit” the twelve, if those changes are likely to harm many thousands of others?
For those who answer no, it is not because they lack compassion or fail to recognise the suffering of the twelve. It is because they perceive that the changes involved cannot be “quarantined” so they only impact on this small group. This is the tragic reality that must be faced.
For a start the changes involved in the End of Life Choice Act cannot be quarantined legally. In spite of the legislation’s architect David Seymour’s claims, there is very little in the Act to ensure patients make their choice free of duress or coercion (read more here). In the same TVNZ programme Seymour also dismissed concerns about the “slippery slope” when it came to legal eligibility. Forget about what might happen in the future he said. Focus on the legislation in front of us now. However we all know that this genre of socially liberal legislation never remains what is in front of us now.
More importantly, the quarantine challenge with this legislation extends well beyond its legal impact. In this Act the State will effectively sanction the idea that there is such a thing as a life not worth living. Once it does so, there will be no way to culturally quarantine this concept. There are tens of thousands of New Zealanders who at any one time are suffering serious depression. Seymour will reassure us that such people are not eligible for assisted suicide under this legislation. But that completely misses the point. The issue here is not legal eligibility. The issue is cultural endorsement of suicide. Go there, and you will inevitably place these vulnerable people at higher risk.
In their tunnel vision, the advocates of the “End of Life Choice Act” consistently ignore these concerns about the wider impact it will have. However good government does not suffer tunnel vision. It takes a broader view of the common good. And most importantly, good government does not assume all problems can be solved and all suffering relieved. It recognises that we live in an imperfect world, where trying to solve intractable problems, often risks creating worse ones.