Euthanasia: Is it up to public opinion?

By September 10, 2015 Recent News

Stuff 7 September 2015
OPINION: Whatever our view on life, religious or not, most people would agree that two scenarios we greatly fear are those of suffering a painful drawn-out death, or watching someone we love suffering such a death.  This is, in part, what drives the current debate on euthanasia and the growing moves to decriminalise/legalise both physician-assisted suicide (where the doctor prescribes the drugs and the patient takes them) and active euthanasia (where the doctor administers a lethal dose of drugs).
In Saturday’s Nelson Mail (August 29) there was the comment that the euthanasia issue was being “hijacked by opponents armed with ‘worst case scenario’ assisted suicide examples from overseas” – a very inaccurate statement as those against euthanasia have been given very little public voice in the media.
The current danger is that we risk poor legislation if such a decision was left up to public opinion alone, so that the determinant of public policy becomes the lowest common denominator capable of securing public consensus.  We need to remember that ultimately euthanasia is a medical issue and as the Palliative Care Council of NZ notes, “both euthanasia and assisted suicide are against the current ethical positions of the medical and nursing professions in New Zealand”.
As an Anglican Minister and a member of the InterChurch Bioethics Council ( I believe there is more to be considered in this debate than public opinion alone.  First, there is significant ethical difference between actively/assisting in killing another person and withdrawing (or with-holding) treatment so that the person dies as a result of their illness – a difference often confused in public comments, even by the Prime Minister.
In both situations the intent of the action is critical.  In forms of euthanasia, the intent is to relieve suffering by killing.  By contrast, when treatment is futile and is stopped or withheld, palliative care given by skilled professionals who address the pain provides the best means to respond compassionately to terminal illness and suffering.