Editorial - The Euthanasia Debate: ‘Play the ball and not the man’

In response to a report on recent comments made by me about the dangers of legalising euthanasia, two people wrote: "I am sick of the religious trying to force their narrow views on society." "Dictate what you like to your own flock, stay the hell out of the affairs of people who want nothing to do with your beliefs." It's a classic case of 'playing the man instead of the ball', discounting my message because of my religious beliefs.

The point being made by these commenters is that religion should have nothing to do with the debate about euthanasia. In response I would say that this is a debate for the whole community. Nevertheless, while Christians have as much right to express their views as any other New Zealander, I do agree that religions should not dictate the content of the law.

I am not interested in imposing my religious views on anyone, and with respect to euthanasia, my personal view is irrelevant. Whether or not people are personally in favour of, or opposed to, euthanasia is ultimately beside the point. To ask this question, as a recent Sunday Star Times poll did, is to ask the wrong question.

The reasons people choose euthanasia are generally based on a fear of suffering, lack of adequate care and social isolation. Promoters of euthanasia suggest that many people die in great physical pain. This is not so if they accept and can access good palliative care. Control of physical and psychological pain has become much more effective in the last thirty years. People rightly want to have choices when they are dying. They wish to feel in control and most often want to die at home. These needs can be met in a holistic and safe way through good advance care planning and comprehensive palliative care.

Having the freedom to choose euthanasia is also about control, specifically control over the timing of one's death. However, the crucial question with respect to euthanasia is whether it can be safely implemented. Maryan Street, MP, glibly asserts that it can while ignoring overseas evidence that says otherwise. I, along with many other New Zealanders, believe differently. Our argument is not religious. It's about the safety and protection of the vulnerable. We need to consider the argument in a rational manner.

The reality of the dangers of euthanasia is readily acknowledged by those wanting to legalise it. It explains why emphasis is placed on building in so-called safeguards. It has also been admitted by Maryan Street in a public debate that no amount of safeguards can stop the law being abused. They simply fail to meet the real world test.

I recently met Sean Davison who was convicted of assisting in the suicide of his mother. He strikes me as a genuine warm person who had the courage to follow his beliefs. It is apparent he thought long and hard about his action. But there will no longer be any need for the same degree of soul-searching if euthanasia were to become legal. It will become relatively easy for people to succumb to more base motives. Legalising euthanasia is fraught with possibilities of abuse for those who are elderly, disabled or dying. These abuses will be easily disguised and hard to identify or prove.

In addition, ours is a society that is increasingly elderly, with growing pressure on health care resources for expensive care. Legalising euthanasia will contribute to those who are nearing the end of life or disabled feeling they are a burden. It is what one commentator has called "the distant and off-handed dismissal of the quality of life of certain people." No law can offer safeguards against this. The right to die will quickly become the duty to die.

Modern living is increasingly busy and elder abuse is an increasing problem. We should not underestimate the subtle ways, conscious and unconscious, families have of putting pressure on their relatives to relieve their burden of care – both emotional and financial. Those working with the dying know this only too well. The very act of making euthanasia legal will remove the most effective barrier we currently have against such abuses.

Such pressures might not matter for a handful of strong-minded people firmly resolved to end their lives. But most people at the end of life aren't like that. They are vulnerable and ambivalent, wavering between hopelessness and hope and worrying about becoming a burden. In which case, large numbers of people may well find themselves on a course about which they are less than whole-hearted but one to which they can see no other alternative.

This is not free choice but a lack of choice. Legalising euthanasia will end up being an illusory choice for far greater numbers of persons than the few who will ever choose to exercise a legal right to be killed.

It is the role of the law in a democratic society to ensure the interests of the majority are not prejudiced by choices granted to a few.

John Kleinsman is Director of The Nathaniel Centre