It is 10 years since Peter Brown’s Death

with Dignity Bill was narrowly defeated in
Parliament. In September, another member’s
bill to legalise voluntary euthanasia was
suddenly withdrawn. Graham Adams asks
why the topic is such a political hot potato
when public opinion polls repeatedly
find a strong majority in favour.

A

62 | NORTH & SOUTH | JANUARY 2014

Health

VOLUNTARY
EUTHANASIA:
TOO HOT TO
HANDLE?
graham adams IS NORTH & SOUTH ’s chief subeditor.
getty

decade after his Death
with Dignity Bill was
defeated in Parliament, former NZ First
MP Peter Brown still
sounds mystified by how the vote went
against him.
Right up to the debate on his member’s bill in July 2003, “we had the numbers to get it across the line by two or
three,” he tells me on the phone from
Tauranga.
But, on the night, “One guy who’d
promised to support the bill didn’t turn
up. And one woman [MP] who had promised support changed her mind.” He
thinks someone with influence in her
electorate had leaned on her.
Certainly, Brown says, if the parliamentary vote had reflected opinion polls
– which were running above 60 per cent
in favour “even in 2003” – his bill should
have got enough votes to at least send
it to a select committee for public discussion. But it was defeated 60-58.
The past 10 years haven’t dimmed
Brown’s passion for the cause, however.
“It is a long time since my involvement
in the voluntary euthanasia debate,” he
says, “but this is still an issue where I
strongly believe people are entitled to
have their chance to express their view.”
Fat chance, you might think.

NORTH & SOUTH | JANUARY 2014 | 63

Professor Sean Davison was sentenced to five months’ home detention in Dunedin on charges
of assisting his mother’s suicide after she had tried to starve herself to death.
mike white / north & south

I

t’s one of the great mysteries
of a modern democracy – a
proposal that a majority of the
public repeatedly approves in
opinion polls finds no major political
party will present it as official policy.
And when a member’s bill to legalise it
is lodged, its sponsor withdraws it before it can be drawn from the ballot because she doesn’t want it to become a
“political football” in an election year.
Labour list MP Maryan Street lodged
her member’s End of Life Choice Bill in
July 2012 then withdrew it in September 2013 – even though it is a topic she
feels very strongly about. It was widely
speculated that senior party members
had pressed her to drop it, but Street
maintains it was entirely her decision.
She says she intends to re-present the
bill after the next election, and withdrawing it was purely for pragmatic reasons, not least because she didn’t want
it “tainted by election-year dynamics”
after she had “bent over backwards to
make sure it wasn’t seen as a partisan
measure”.
“Conscience issues – such as voluntary euthanasia, alcohol, abortion or
64 | NORTH & SOUTH | JANUARY 2014

prostitution – are very exposing for
MPs,” she says. “Opposition to these
things can be very vociferous and polarising, if people want to make it so.
“Suddenly, MPs can’t hide behind a
manifesto. They have to make up their
own minds and they usually don’t have
the cover of a party position. They have
to have the courage to nail their colours
to the mast, or not.
“In election year, that is a riskier
activity than in a non-election year.”
Yet should it be seen as so risky when
opinion polls over two decades have
shown that a clear majority of New Zealanders want the right to choose assistance to die if they are terminally ill?
In 1995, a One Network News-Colmar
Brunton poll found 62 per cent of participants approved of voluntary euthanasia, with 27 per cent opposed and 10
per cent undecided.
In 2003, a Massey University survey
showed 73 per cent of respondents wanted assisted suicide to be made legal if it
was performed by a doctor (support
dropped to 49 per cent if performed by
others); a Voluntary Euthanasia Society
survey in 2008 found 71 per cent backed

a similar proposal.
Street cited to North & South the results
of a 2012 Horizon Research poll which
showed “a huge majority” in favour of her
bill, with 62.9 per cent approving it and
just 12.3 per cent opposed.
In October this year, National’s Phil
Heatley – an avowed moral conservative – found to his surprise that 66 per
cent of 977 respondents he polled in his
electorate of Whangarei favoured some
form of assisted suicide.
What’s more, the courts – reflecting
public sentiment – often adopt a lenient
position when sentencing those who
help hasten the deaths of loved ones who
are dying. In a widely reported case in
late 2011, Sean Davison, a South Africabased microbiologist, was sentenced to
five months’ home detention in Dunedin
after he pleaded guilty to a charge of
“inciting and procuring” the attempted
suicide of his 85-year-old mother,
Patricia, in 2006. (He gave her crushed
morphine tablets in a glass of water, at
her request.)
In September 2012, Evans Mott was
discharged without conviction in the
High Court at Auckland after he assisted

the suicide of his wife, Rosie, who had
advanced multiple sclerosis, which
meant she could not feed herself, was
incontinent and had trouble walking.
She had made a video that was presented to the court, in which she explained
her decision to die.
To prove her husband was not present
when she died, she asked him to go out
and buy something from a shop.
As these and other court rulings show,
attitudes to voluntary euthanasia are
changing – Street says the “conversation has moved on a lot” in the past 10
years – but still no major political party
has been willing to make it official campaign policy. Or even to propose its own
bill when in government and allow its
members, and those of other parties, a
conscience vote, which is how National
dealt this year with the question of
giving SkyCity more pokie machines in
exchange for building a convention centre in Auckland.
Peter Brown agrees such an approach
would be a good way of presenting voluntary euthanasia for debate in Parliament. Also, he says, it could be subject to
a binding referendum as a further check
to make sure what Parliament decided
was, indeed, what the public wanted.
When John Key was asked his opinion
in October – after a coroner had commented at an inquest into an elderly
woman’s suicide that voluntary euthanasia was a topic Parliament would have to
address again – he said: “It’s hard to believe the government would put it on the
agenda any time soon. Fundamentally,
the government has to be confident it’s
got the numbers, and I couldn’t be at all
confident we’ve got the numbers. There
would be quite a considerable portion of
the National caucus that would vote
against that. It is something best managed through that member’s process.”
(In the case referred to by the coroner,
an 85-year-old widow in Lower Hutt had
waited for her family to leave from a visit
then used a homemade device to kill herself in what was described as “euthanasia
by suffocation”. On the stuff.co.nz news
website, a poll alongside the story drew
4269 votes, with two-thirds favouring
the legalisation of euthanasia.)

T

he reluctance of our political leaders to deal with
voluntary euthanasia as
party policy – at least in

Labour list MP Maryan Street withdrew her member’s bill in September
because she didn’t want the question of legalising voluntary euthanasia
to be treated as a political football in an election year.
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terms of pledging a national discussion
and referendum – is particularly hard
to understand given we are a nation
known for our pragmatism rather than
our religious fervour.
Contrast a deeply Catholic nation such
as France, where President François Hollande made publicly discussing the issue
of voluntary euthanasia a campaign
pledge in 2012, and said he would introduce a bill to legalise it. This despite a
proposal to legalise assisted suicide having been defeated in the French Parliament in 2011.
And France, you might remember, saw
street protests when same-sex marriage
– another of Hollande’s campaign
pledges – was voted into law this year.

Despite its long Catholic history, however, France also has a tradition of personal liberty and secularism, in which
church and state are clearly separated.
And, obviously, French politicians are
a lot braver than ours.
In New Zealand, our parliamentarians
have preferred to leave the question of
voluntary euthanasia to the lottery of a
member’s bill, which means any bill might
not be picked to go before Parliament for
weeks, months, years – or never at all.
Brown says that although he was reluctant to continue pursuing the issue
after his bill’s defeat, he was persuaded
by the many people contacting him in
support to re-present it in 2004. But
when he retired from politics five years
NORTH & SOUTH | jANUARY 2014 | 65

Lake Kaniere.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI signed an apostolic exhortation at the Vatican in which he decreed celibacy remained obligatory
for priests. He also urged Catholic lawmakers to oppose laws favouring divorce, abortion and euthanasia.
ARTURO MARI / OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images

later, his bill still hadn’t been drawn
from the ballot.
After its defeat in 2003, he had
discussed with Helen Clark the possibility of presenting it as a government measure. She’d voted for Brown’s
proposal, but told him a member’s bill
was still the best means of addressing
the issue.

W

hy our most prominent politicians
won’t front the issue
seems even stranger
when the leaders of our two biggest parties voted for Brown’s 2003 bill to proceed
to a select committee. And John Key not
only voted in favour, in August last year
he told Newstalk ZB he “broadly supported” the principle of voluntary euthanasia and would consider it himself
if he were terminally ill.
Labour’s leader David Cunliffe also
voted in 2003 for it to proceed to a select committee, but when I emailed
him in October to ask what he thought
about voluntary euthanasia personally,
he replied coyly: “I have a clear per66 | NORTH & SOUTH | jANUARY 2014

sonal view on this issue. However, at
this time, given my new responsibilities, I am refraining from stating it so
as not to unduly influence any future
conscience process that might arise.”
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman
wasn’t an MP in 2003, but he told 3 News
in 2012 that he’d be voting for Maryan
Street’s End of Life Choice Bill, adding:
“I think it should go to select committee.
I think we should have the debate about
it as a country.”
But when I asked him in October if
that was still his stance on the bill and
whether he would “vote for it when it
is reintroduced [by Maryan Street]”, he
didn’t answer but passed the email on
to Kevin Hague, who describes himself
as the party’s spokesman on “healthcare
issues, including end-of-life ones”.
Hague said he was “disappointed that
Maryan has withdrawn her bill, but
understand her reasons for doing so”.
The Greens “have a process under way
to develop policy [on assisted dying], but
it has been moving slowly and is now
very unlikely to be finalised before the
next election”.

R

eviewing attempts to legalise voluntary euthanasia over the past 20
years, you could be excused for thinking most politicians don’t
really want the public to be given the
chance to discuss the topic at all.
In 1995, then-National MP Michael
Laws presented his Death with Dignity
Bill, jointly drafted by former MP Cam
Campion, who was dying of cancer. It
was proposed that the bill would become
law only after a binding national referendum, to be held with the general election in 1996.
The purpose of the debate was to decide whether the bill should be introduced
to the House and then discussed at select
committee hearings. That proposal was
defeated 61-29, with many abstentions.
When Parliament discussed the matter
next in 2003, Brown emphasised he was
“not asking anybody here in the House
to make the final decision”.
“This bill – should it pass all stages –
will go before the public of New Zealand,
so that the public can make the decision
by means of a binding referendum.”

Parliament, after a short debate, again
decided against allowing it to progress
further.
Who exactly, you may wonder, is so
keen to make sure the public never even
gets the chance to officially discuss that
most fundamental of human questions:
should I live or should I die?
In 2000, Labour MP Chris Carter
blamed a “vociferous moral minority”
wielding undue influence. Brown says
the principal opponents of his bill were
the Catholic Church and the New Zealand Medical Association, which publicly announced its opposition in the
run-up to the parliamentary debate.
Nothing much has changed in 10 years.
In September, Ken Orr, spokesman for
Catholic advocacy group Right to Life
New Zealand, wrote on its website that
the organisation had written “to all the
Labour MPs on July 24, lobbying them
to use their influence to have this destructive and controversial bill removed
from the ballot”.
Orr claimed its withdrawal was due to
the lobbying, and said: “Right to Life now
requests [Street] finally discards this bill
and makes a commitment to the community to refrain from placing this contentious bill back in the ballot. This bill
has no place in our Parliament.”

P

eter Brown is a Christian.
“Not a devout one,” he
says, “but I try to live my
life according to Christian principles.”
He notes that among the “hundreds of
letters” he received about his 2003 bill
were many supportive messages from
Christians, but some of the most un­
pleasant were “standard letters” from
religious people with comments
scrawled at the bottom. Some were “very
unChristian-like”, he says. “And the
worst letters I got were from people who
identified themselves as Catholics.”
Like Brown, Maryan Street is quick to
emphasise that not all Catholics are opposed to voluntary euthanasia: “There’s
no monolithic view on this by any group
in society,” she says.
Nevertheless, whatever the rank and
file think, the Catholic Church hierarchy
vigorously opposes assisted suicide,
which is hardly surprising given its
prohibition on taking another human’s
life; that it regards life as a gift from God
and its natural course should not be

Dr John Pollock, an Auckland GP, wrote a paper in 2010 calling for the
legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. Suffering from terminal cancer, he died
“peacefully at home” with his family two months after this photo was taken.
Presspix / Paul Estcourt

interfered with; that suicide is a mortal
sin; and that suffering is integral to the
church’s teachings about salvation.
This last point is often overlooked in
the debate about voluntary euthanasia,
but was made vividly apparent to me in
2007 after my sister died in a Brisbane
hospital tied to a bed, screaming in agony
from cancer in her lungs, breasts and
spine.
A few days after her death, a devoutly
Catholic relative rang to say she had heard
my sister had died in horrific pain and

suffering
is integral
to the
catholic
church’s
teachings
about
salvation.

NORTH & SOUTH | jANUARY 2014 | 67

Even in countries where voluntary euthanasia is legal, it can be difficult to
arrange. In 2009, 93-year old Amelie Van Esbeen went on a hunger strike in
Belgium after her request for euthanasia was denied by her rest home. Medical
staff felt she didn’t qualify under a law authorising doctors to help patients die
only if they are suffering from a “serious terminal illness” and “constant and
unbearable pain that cannot be relieved”. The decision was reviewed by another
doctor and she died the following month, surrounded by family members.
AFP JORGE DIRKX/AFP/Getty Images

tried to console me by saying the good
news was that her suffering hadn’t been
pointless because she “wouldn’t have to
spend much time in purgatory”.
She went on to explain that enduring
suffering patiently on Earth is one way
to cut your time in purgatory.
If you read around the topic, you’ll find
that, according to the Catholic Church,
anyone who isn’t going straight to hell
has to be “purified” of unforgiven venial
sins in purgatory before facing God.
Catholics advocate suffering as a way
of sharing in Christ’s sacrifice of his life
on the cross. In fact, it is so common to
see a cross in the Western world that
it’s easy for the unreligious to forget it
is an instrument of torture, or that Catholic worship often takes place in front
of a representation of a man being tortured to death on a cross. Suffering as a
means of sanctification is fundamental
to Christianity, and to Roman Catholicism in particular.
And not only experiencing suffering,
but watching it as well, apparently. As
Bill English, a practising Catholic, said
in arguing against the 2003 Death with
Dignity Bill in Parliament: “Pain is part
of life, and watching it is part of our
humanity. Many of us have become
more human for watching it, whether
or not we liked doing that.”
68 | NORTH & SOUTH | jANUARY 2014

As well as regarding killing another
person as a mortal sin, Catholics believe
humans shouldn’t stand in the way of
fulfilling God’s plan for them, which is
one of the reasons the church forbids
anything but “natural” methods of contraception such as the rhythm method
or abstinence (even when condoms, for
instance, can help prevent the spread
of the HIV virus). Dying is another natural process, governed by God’s will,
that shouldn’t be interfered with.
The strength of the church’s opposition was made clear in the Vatican’s
Declaration on Euthanasia in 1980,
which states: “Intentionally causing
one’s own death, or suicide, is equally
as wrong as murder; such an action on
the part of a person is to be considered
as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and
loving plan”; and “no one can in any way
permit the killing of an innocent human
being, whether a foetus or an embryo,
an infant or an adult, an old person, or
one suffering from an incurable disease,
or a person who is dying.
“Furthermore, no one is permitted to
ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person
entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or
she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately
recommend or permit such an action.”

No one, of course, disputes the right of
religious people to live life to their last
possible breath – and suffer excruciating pain along with it – if that is their
wish. But why try to force that viewpoint
on others?
As Zurich’s voluntary euthanasia clinic
Dignitas says in its manifesto: “No one has
the right to impose or even attempt to impose his or her individual ideological,
religious or political beliefs on another.
Muslims should not do it to Christians,
Jews or Buddhists. Christians should not
do it to Jews or those of other beliefs, and
a believer should not do it to an unbeliever
– not even using the indirect method of a
governmental regulation.
“The state should be the guarantor
for a pluralistic society and must forbid
anything that would restrict this pluralism or lead it in a certain direction in
the interest of a specific ideological
viewpoint.”
In fact, we are so used to politicians
shutting down the official debate, it’s
easy to forget that what advocates of
voluntary euthanasia are proposing is
an action that takes place between two
consenting adults.

W

hy the NZMA opposes voluntary euthanasia is an abidi n g my st e r y t o
many, just as it was to Dr John Pollock.
In 2010, Pollock – a 61-year-old Auckland GP facing death from metastatic
melanoma – wrote an open letter to New
Zealand Doctor, which was also published in the New Zealand Herald. He
noted that the association’s official position didn’t tally with his experience
of talking to fellow doctors (and, for that
reason, he had resigned as a member
several years earlier).
“The New Zealand Medical Association is against euthanasia. To me this is
unfathomable,” he wrote. “I have discussed it with many, many of my colleagues over the years and have found
that the vast majority are for it. Indeed,
I have met many who, at great risk to
themselves, have succumbed to a patient’s begging for a merciful release.
“Is it really likely that the profession
that sanctions the termination of the lives
of thousands of healthy unborn babies
each year would criminalise the shortening of the lives of suffering, dying patients
who ask for that last merciful service?”

Ending a Life
Is withdrawing the necessities of life simply euthanasia by another name?

I

t had felt like the right
decision, back at the
rest home, when her
elderly mother signed a
form declining medical
intervention if she
became critically ill. But as Rebecca
sat by the hospital bed watching
her die, and the days stretched
into a week, the reality of what
that choice meant left her shaken.
Unable to swallow, her mother
had been given no food or fluids,
and the restlessness that saw
her plucking compulsively at the
bedding gradually diminished
as her body weakened. By the
sixth day, it was clear she would
never regain consciousness
from the massive stroke she’d
suffered in her sleep.
“That would have been a good
time to let her go,” says Rebecca,
who wanted to be with her
mother when she died. “I knew
she wouldn’t want to continue
in a vegetative state. It felt cruel,
as if she was sort of trapped.
But you can’t choose to be
gently swept away on a cloud of
morphine. That seems like a more
humane scenario than allowing
her to dehydrate to death.”
Even if voluntary euthanasia
were legalised, what would
happen in situations like this,
where the dying are unable to
communicate their wishes? And is
there really a difference between
withdrawing the necessities
of life and stopping someone’s
heart with a lethal injection?
That’s a common misconception,
says Anne Morgan, practice adviser
for Hospice New Zealand. She’s
worked in oncology and palliative
care for more than 30 years,
and sees Rebecca’s experience
as an example of how poorly
end-of-life care is sometimes
communicated to the family
and how ill-prepared we are to
deal with the process of dying.
After a massive stroke causes

The kidneys are
often first to
fail and would
be unable to
cope if fluids
were given
intravenously.
severe brain damage, or when
a terminal illness reaches a
critical point, the body’s organs
are no longer able to function
and naturally begin to shut
down, Morgan explains. The
kidneys are often first to fail and
would be unable to cope if fluids
were given intravenously.

“There are very clear indicators
that any treatment is no longer
useful, but would be a burden
on the body and cause distress,”
she says. “After a major medical
event, such as a stroke or advanced
disease, that’s what the person
dies from – not dehydration.
“It’s like a motor shutting down.
The breathing slows and finally
the heart stops and comes to rest.”
Hospice New Zealand’s
official position is that it does
not support a change in the law
to legalise assisted dying in any
form, but follows the World
Health Organisation’s definition
of palliative care – “neither to
hasten nor postpone death”.
Individual end-of-life plans
are talked through with each
patient, including where they
want to be cared for, their spiritual
needs and the choice to refuse
treatment. Most commonly,
people want reassurance they
won’t be in pain, to have their
family around them, and not to
be kept alive by artificial means.
“The debate that needs to be
happening in the public arena
is about having those good
conversations with your family
before you get sick,” Morgan
says. “An acute situation is not
a good time to be making such
decisions. There are formal ways
to do that, with advanced care
plans, but it can also just be a
dinner-time conversation.
“I think the reason the euthanasia
debate has reared its head in a way
is because medical technology
has gone ahead so rapidly that we
can now keep people alive. And
a lot of the conversations around
it are quite emotive. But dying is
actually a normal process for the
body. It knows how to do it. With
good support, it will do it very
well. For the family, it’s a very sad
time, but there’s a beauty in that
sadness and a lot of honesty.”
JOANNA WANE

NORTH & SOUTH | jANUARY 2014 | 69

It’s worth noting that the NZMA is not
the body that registers doctors. That organisation is the Medical Council of New
Zealand, which looks after “standards,
conduct and competence”. It has a neutral stance on voluntary eu­thanasia.
The NZMA is more like a union; it describes itself as the country’s “foremost
pan-professional medical organisation,
representing the collective interests of
all doctors”.
It also boasts on its website of being
“a strong advocate on medico-political
issues, with a strategic programme of
advocacy with politicians and officials
at the highest levels” and that “our high
profile and influence places us in a
strong position to advance core health
issues”.
NZMA policy on voluntary euthanasia
is not formulated in consultation with
local doctors. The NZMA board and
councils are representative bodies, elected
by members, but its chairman, Napier GP
Mark Peterson, confirms doctors aren’t
polled individually about their views.

W

hile the question of
whether voluntary
euthanasia should
be made legal for a
dying person suffering overwhelming
pain is easily agreed to by many when
asked, it becomes a much more thorny
debate once the net is widened.
Opponents of voluntary euthanasia
quite rightly point out the difficult ethical questions involved in deciding who
exactly should be covered by legislation.
Should it include those, for instance,
without a terminal disease but who find
life intolerable because of a mental illness that medicine cannot control? Or
should anyone be able to instruct close
relatives, by way of an advance directive, to ensure that they are euthanised
when they get a disease such as Alzheimer’s and can no longer confirm that
earlier choice themselves?
These are difficult propositions worthy
of close analysis and debate, but it is the
weakest (and sometimes plainly false)
arguments against legalising voluntary
euthanasia that are often the first
deployed. A common one is asserting that
palliative care has advanced to such a
level that no one need feel overwhelming
and uncontrollable pain.
John Pollock devoted part of his letter
to identifying the arguments commonly
70 | NORTH & SOUTH | JANUARY 2014

used against voluntary euthanasia. The
first of the “prevalent arguments” he
attacked was: “Our medical services, particularly the hospice organisation, have
the skills to take the unpleasantness out
of dying and so euthanasia is unnecessary.”
Pollock didn’t accept this. “Breakthrough pain is common and its prevention requires constant medical attention,
which is not often available,” he wrote.
“We are not good with neuropathic pain.”
He added: “My cancer may kill me in
a variety of ways, some very unpleasant
and drawn out. There are several scenarios which I would find intolerable
and should be able to opt out of but for
our old-fashioned, ill-thought-out, cruel
laws which force me to suffer to the end
or kill myself.”
In fact, as journalist Jim Robinson
pointed out in 2007 in his North & South
article “A Fiery End” that focused on pain
management for dying patients, “breakthrough pain” occurs in about 10 per cent
of cancer cases, which means around 900
people a year die with pain that cannot
be reliably controlled by available painkillers. Yet, the website of the Catholic
Nathaniel Bio­e thics Centre states:
“These days, no one need die in pain.”
And, of course, it is not just the problem
of unbearable pain. People also die in
other terrifying ways. Rodney Hide told
Parliament during the 2003 Death with
Dignity debate that his friend Martin
Hames “had watched his mother die a
terrible death [from Huntington’s] — a
death where one loses one’s mind and
loses control, to the extent that one
cannot swallow.” Hames chose to kill
himself in 2002 to pre-empt suffering
that fate himself.
Hide, who supported Peter Brown’s
bill, said: “If Mr Brown’s bill had been
the law, Martin Hames would still be
with us, I am sure. He would not have
needed to take his own life, as he did.”
Last September, Canadian infectious
diseases specialist Donald Lowe – who
came to national prominence steering
Canada through the SARS crisis in 2003
– made a video of himself a week before
he died of a brain-stem tumour; it was
posted on YouTube after his death.
Already debilitated, Dr Lowe spoke
of his fears of being unable to swallow,
eat, walk or control his bodily functions, and suggested anyone opposed
to voluntary euthanasia who “could
live in my body for 24 hours” would

such desperate sub­terfuge for those in
unbearable agony or distress would not
be necessary.

change their mind.
“Why make people suffer for no reason when there’s an alternative?” he
asked. “I just don’t understand it.”

P

A

nother tack commonly
used to argue against
legalising voluntary
euthanasia is to shift the
debate from the use of voluntary euthanasia to its abuse. This is the “thin edge
of the wedge” or “slippery slope” argument, which often leads opponents to
invoke the spectre of the Nazis killing
victims such as the mentally deficient
– completely overlooking the fact the
Nazis specialised in involuntary euthanasia. In fact, they were known for
state-sanctioned murder.
This argument cut no ice with the dying Dr Pollock. “The thin edge of the
wedge [argument] – if we allow voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill, it
won’t be long before we are killing the
mentally ill, the deformed and everyone
over 70 – is about as sensible as saying if
we allow people to eat meat it won’t be
long before we are eating each other.”
In fact, Pollock effectively reversed the
argument, pointing out that under our
present laws we allow people to die in
“most appallingly wretched states, sometimes akin to those who died of starvation in Nazi concentration camps”.
Brown says: “The best argument against
the ‘slippery slope’ is good legislation –
sound, workable and totally voluntary
euthanasia”.
It’s also worth pointing out that most
nations, including ours, already have experience in regulating how people kill and
are killed. In war, for example, there are
strict rules against killing non-combatants
(particularly women and children), and
severe penalties for those who do.
If the state can make laws for how
people conduct themselves amidst the
terror and chaos of war, why is it so difficult to make laws that govern how we
deal with those dying in the relative
peace of a hospital ward, a hospice or
at home?
And we are hardly going to be pioneers
in the field. Internationally, there are
plenty of models of legal voluntary
euthanasia to study, including four US
states – Vermont, Oregon, Montana and
Washington – as well as Belgium, the
Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland, where the Dignitas clinic accepts

A “euthanasia kit” available in Belgian chemist shops for doctors who
want to carry out euthanasia at a patient’s home. Doctors in Belgium have
complained of difficulties in practising home euthanasia in suitable conditions
because of a lack of knowledge about products, doses or procedures.
ETIENNE ANSOTTE/AFP/Getty Images

patients from around the world because
its staff believe it would be discriminatory to exclude those unlucky enough
not to be Swiss citizens.
Perhaps one of the most interesting lessons comes from Oregon, where around
40 per cent of those given a lethal prescription don’t use it. For them, the reassurance they can have a painless death
is sufficient.

Y

es, you can always kill
yourself – or at least try –
but as Pollock wrote: “The
law won’t be changed in
time for me and the only way that I can
legally end my life before it is due to end
is suicide and that’s the cruelty of it – not
only suicide but suicide alone, because
if I top myself with my family present
then I put them at risk, and I think that’s
hideous. It’s very cruel.”
Maryan Street paints that cruelty in
vivid terms: “Why did Rosie Mott have
to send Evans out to the supermarket
and for him to have to wait until the
texts stopped coming? Why couldn’t he
have been with her when she died?”
Terminally ill people often end up
using extreme ways to kill themselves
too, although details of their final moments are usually suppressed.
Last May, a coroner found that devoted
Paekakariki couple Adrian and Marei
Webster, both in their 70s, had died in a
suicide pact, but banned publication of

Perhaps one
of the most
interesting
lessons comes
from Oregon,
where around
40 per cent of
those given
a lethal
prescription
don’t use
it. the
reassurance
they can have
a painless
death is
sufficient.
the manner of their deaths. Adrian, a
local body politician, had terminal
stomach cancer. Hand­written suicide
notes were found, but it was unclear
whether they were parties in each other’s
deaths or just their own.
Some voluntary euthanasia advocates
now operate an underground movement
with advice on how to kill yourself as
painlessly as possible. But, as Dr Pollock
noted, anyone suspected of having a
hand in the suicide, including even providing materials such as helium and
plastic bags, risks being charged with
aiding a suicide even if they are not present at the time of death.
If the nation developed a well-regulated
and entirely voluntary euthanasia policy,

eter Brown says he was
very disappointed by Maryan Street withdrawing
her bill. He thinks she may
have done so because Labour didn’t want
to risk further antagonising middle New
Zealand after same-sex legislation came
into effect last August as a result of Labour list MP Louisa Wall’s member’s bill
being drawn from the ballot.
Or is the reason much simpler – that
Street knows Labour will put forward
a government bill if it wins the next
election?
She has said publicly that is her hope,
while denying a deal has already been
done with party leaders. “I don’t have
a cast-iron undertaking from anybody
that that will happen but I will certainly
agitate for it.”
She is “keen to promote it to her caucus colleagues, but still as a conscience
vote, obviously”.
Asked if she would like it to be a govern-­
ment bill, Street replied: “Ideally, yes,
because it would take the capriciousness
out of the situation.”
When I emailed David Cunliffe and
asked: “If Labour is in a position to form
a government after the next general elections in 2014, will such a bill be proposed
by your government?” he replied enigmatically, “This has traditionally been
dealt with as a conscience matter. There
is no bill currently before us at this time.”
When a bill is eventually presented –
either as a member’s bill or as a government measure – Street has no doubt that
“a well-resourced, vocal minority”,
whose position is “informed more by
their theology than anything else”, will
“pull out the big guns”.
But she has been “working steadily
over the past 20 months”, organising
meetings to discuss voluntary euthanasia
and getting turnouts of 300-400 in the
big cities and 50-120 in provincial centres
such as Hamilton, Nelson and New
Plymouth.
Street says she is trying to “create a
solid groundswell so that people are
talking about the issue and coming out
of the woodwork and lobbying their MPs.
“And at every turn I am finding a majority in favour,” she says. “In the end,
the vocal minority will not be able to
contest all of that.”
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NORTH & SOUTH | jANUARY 2014 | 71