Seldom a warning to journey's end

By June 9, 2015 Recent News

Bay of Plenty Times 9 June 2015
“DYING with dignity” seems to me a Hollywood fantasy, much like its filtered portrayal of births, love and war.
In real life, few people get to utter dying wishes to a horseshoe of family gathered around a bed, and then sink into their silk pillow and the next world with a last peaceful breath.
For most of us, dying is messy or unexpected or both.
Choosing when we die, though, still seems something Matrix-like. Alien to us. Not human.
Yet the debate needs to be had.
For that, we can be grateful to Lecretia Seales, the terminally ill lawyer who mounted a legal challenge seeking the right for a doctor to help her die without criminal prosecution.
Her death early yesterday came before the judge made public his decision.
Her legal argument – a first in New Zealand – was that it was a fundamental right to be able to choose to end her life with medical assistance, if she wanted, before her suffering became intolerable.
It was an argument that relied on the provisions in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which protect the rights to not be deprived of life or subjected to cruel treatment.
A favourable High Court ruling would have allowed others to follow suit and potentially send a signal for further law reform.
Ironic that a bill put in place to protect human life was being used to defend the right to end it.
But even those who at this stage, like me, are against euthanasia, could not have failed to be moved by Seales’ plight.
She didn’t set out to be the poster child for the pro-euthanasia debate, but there couldn’t have been a more perfect one.
An intelligent and articulate young woman, cut down from the top of her game, as Dawn Picken writes in her story today.
The former Tauranga Girls’ College woman’s symptoms of pain and paralysis were hard to watch.
Who were we to say she should have rattled round in her hospital bed, mute, with her eyes shut until the fat lady sang?
Pain and suffering is what we all fear in death. It seems so much easier to say yes let’s rush it along.
Despite this, I, and many New Zealanders will be glad the judge ruled that medically assisted death will stay illegal.
For if another ruling had set a precedent, where could it have taken us?
Who would decide when someone can die? What conditions might they have?
Would a person suffering from, say, a depression that they thought as equally incurable as Seales’ condition, be allowed to legally opt out with a GP’s help?
Our health system is already stretched. As we have reported recently, many in the Bay have been turned away from surgery and are living with painful conditions.
There is a danger that assisted dying may become a less expensive option, putting the poor, the old, the vulnerable and the uninsured at risk.
Or those who are wealthy might be at risk from relatives waiting for an inheritance, wanting to pull an early plug on grandma.
Despite this, I, and many New Zealanders will be glad the judge ruled that medically assisted death will stay illegal.
Death is never pretty. But this debate should not be coloured by an emotive and terrible story of a woman who faced death and wanting to end suffering.
The Crown dismissed the “rhetorical flourish” of arguments used by Seales’ lawyers about her suffering, arguing that the suffering, and even accompanying humiliation of having others care for you was “unavoidable in the phenomenon of illness and ultimately in dying.
It may be distressing, but it is not gravely humiliating and debasing”, reported The Listener this week on the case.
However sympathetic we were to Seales, individual desire should not determine the morals, ethics and medical laws that frame our society.
I would rather funding and future legislation be directed to caring well for the living, including taking care of the sick.
That more funding went into palliative care so that dying can be done in the best way possible that neither hastens or prolongs death – as is the philosophy of our own Waipuna Hospice.
To do otherwise would be to tinker with the circle of life. It would be spiking the wheel of fortune, which, despite its unpredictability, suffering and sadness also spins acceptance, happiness, and – crucially – freedom.
Freedom, which is part of the human condition. What living, and dying are all about, as Lion King fans know.