An overwhelming 80% of submissions to Parliament’s Health Select Committee oppose medically-assisted dying, it was revealed in the Committee’s Report on euthanasia and assisted suicide released yesterday.
“This report expresses significant public concerns around the unintended consequences of any such legislation,” said Dr John Kleinsman, Director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre. “It also makes the important point that the ‘issue is clearly very complicated’, something that the New Zealand media have, to date, largely failed to convey in their mostly shallow reporting on this issue.”
“It is extremely telling that certain members of the Committee remain unconvinced that the models seen overseas provide adequate protection for vulnerable people. It is our view that the Report does not give the sorts of assurances needed by the New Zealand Parliament to change the current law, assurances that it won’t pose substantial risks of coercion and abuse for those who are most vulnerable, the elderly, sick and disabled,” said Kleinsman.
The Health Select Committee’s parliamentary report follows an in-depth inquiry into euthanasia. More than 21,000 submissions on this issue were received by the Select Committee from around the country between 27 August 2015 and 1 February 2016, and almost 1000 people provided oral submissions.
At last year’s hearing before the Select Committee, Cardinal John Dew reiterated the risk that legalising euthanasia would pose for too many. “We are concerned that some people will choose euthanasia because they feel they’re a financial or physical or emotional burden on their families and carers.” This concern is borne out in the Report which clearly identifies, in multiple places, that the desire to ‘not become reliant on others’ and ‘not wishing to be a burden’ is what motivates many to make euthanasia and assisted suicide available.
“This reinforces our view that a law change would initiate a change in the way society would view the disabled and those who are dying, as well as the way we care for these people. Of even greater concern is that these persons would come to view their own place in society in a much more tentative way,” said Dr Kleinsman.
The Committee commented too that agreement on the criteria for euthanasia and assisted suicide was in itself contentious, with some submitters thinking it would or should be even broader than terminal illness or an irreversible condition, illustrating the difficulties of setting clearly defined boundaries that could later be defended.
The Committee rightly commends the services given by palliative care providers and hospices, while perceiving that there was a need for greater communication between the palliative sector and the public so as to facilitate a better understanding of the efficacy of palliative care. It also encourages the Government to investigate improving access to these services. “While there are gaps in access to services and varying levels of palliative care around the country it is a fallacy to promote euthanasia or assisted suicide as a valid choice – it would become a Hobson’s choice for many,” said Kleinsman.
While Dr Kleinsman expressed disappointment that the Report did not engage more with the solid evidence that was presented by many individuals and groups, he concluded, “anyone who reads this Report in full with an open mind cannot help but be left with huge concerns about the ability of any proposed law to supply adequate safeguards, the sort of safeguards that would work in the real world.”
“In the absence of clear and irrefutable evidence that the most vulnerable would be adequately protected then, on such an issue when the stakes are life and death and when a mistake is permanent, the precautionary principle must apply,” said Dr Kleinsman. “It is not up to opponents to prove beyond doubt that a law would be dangerous. Rather, it is up to proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide to prove beyond doubt that it would be safe and this Report clearly does not deliver the required level of assurance.”
The Nathaniel Centre is the Bioethics Research Agency for the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference.