Editorial: Euthanasia "let's at least have a robust debate!"

John Kleinsman
Issue 32, November 2010

We all want to protect and promote the dignity of persons at the end of life.

One way of understanding the euthanasia debate is to see it as a disagreement about how best to promote and protect the dignity of persons who are dying.

That said, it is particularly disturbing that the term 'dignity' has been hijacked by those in favour of euthanasia and is now closely aligned with attempts to have euthanasia legalised. The clear inference to be taken from the name that Lesley Martin has given to her pro-euthanasia organisation – Dignity NZ Trust – is that a dignified death can be uncritically associated with killing those who are at, or near, the end of their life. It's taken as read.

The way in which proponents of euthanasia are seeking to linguistically engineer an association in people's minds between dignity and euthanasia begs the very question that needs to be debated. The idea that euthanasia is dignified is totally refutable, yet its continued assertion implies there is nothing problematic about equating killing with a dignified death. Intellectually speaking, this is less than honest; clever, but not honest; the assertion is only true to the extent that there are no good reasons to oppose euthanasia.

There are many good reasons why we must oppose euthanasia; an honest reflection on the Dutch and Oregon experiences shows that there is much to be feared and much to be lost when it is legalised. That there remains a strong case to reject its legalisation is also highlighted by the fact that in various places, including Canada, the State of New Hampshire and Western Australia, recent attempts to legalise it have been voted down by significant margins. This in itself should give reason to pause and think more critically.

Why is it that those in favour of euthanasia prefer to use euphemisms in promoting their cause? It is, to put it bluntly, nothing more than a form of manipulation; research clearly shows that more people will think positively about euthanasia when the issues are presented (disguised) in a certain way. This also explains why proponents go to great lengths to avoid particular terms. At a recent meeting I attended on euthanasia, one of the participants, clearly pro-euthanasia, stood up and objected strongly to the use of the word 'killing' by different speakers – in his mind it was totally 'inappropriate.' But euthanasia is precisely that; however we choose to describe it, it is always the killing of one person by another.

It is the uncritical use of words such as 'dignity', 'compassion' and 'assisted-dying' to describe euthanasia that is inappropriate and even unethical. Using such language only serves to obscure rather than reveal the deeper ethical, cultural and social issues associated with the practice of euthanasia. Important questions disappear at the cost of a robust debate. The challenge in New Zealand is to show that we can move to a more rigorous level of discussion that does justice to the true complexity of the issue. Yet it's something that we seem to find difficult, preferring bumper sticker rhetoric that engages the emotions but rarely challenges the mind.

It is essential that we have a robust debate about euthanasia. How else can we become 'fully informed'? This highlights the responsibility we all have, and politicians in particular, to ensure that the debate happens in a way that enables us to engage with the issue in all its complexity. While proponents of euthanasia make all the right noises about having a debate, in reality their deliberate use of euphemisms effectively short-circuits the sort of debate they claim to be promoting.

The media also shoulders considerable responsibility for enabling a robust debate about euthanasia. If we are to become fully informed the media must be willing to present the complexities of the debate in an objective way that takes account of perspectives on both sides of the argument. Furthermore, the news media must show a greater willingness to report on euthanasia in a way that moves the discussion beyond protecting individual choice and beyond the superficiality of presenting personal stories in a non-critical and emotive manner; much more is at stake than personal choice and personal stories take us only so far. Beyond the issue of personal choice lie questions about the cultural and social consequences of legalising euthanasia; specifically its effect on those who are most vulnerable to the suggestion that they are an unwanted burden to society, namely the elderly and the disabled.

A good start to this debate, as for any debate, requires clarity about the term 'euthanasia' and requires that we dispel the various myths about what constitutes, and what does not constitute, euthanasia. To this end, the article in this issue by Dr Megan Best is particularly valuable for the way in which she distinguishes euthanasia from withholding or withdrawing certain treatments and from adequate symptom control.

Death with dignity – it's what we all want. However, the arguments which show that euthanasia will ultimately undermine individual human dignity and lead to a more expedient attitude towards those who are most vulnerable have yet to be properly aired and considered in New Zealand. Despite the efforts of the pro-euthanasia lobby to date, in factbecause of their efforts, it is apparent that a fair and robust debate must, and still needs, to happen.

John Kleinsman
The Nathaniel Centre