Ideasroom

Autonomy, coronavirus and the right to die

Dr Amanda Landers uses the examples of the pandemic and assisted dying to ask: when does your autonomy start and finish?

Autonomy is a double-edged sword. 

It is defined as the right to self-govern, to be independent in thought or deed. It is highly valued by many New Zealanders, but it does have a darker side. Autonomy can only exist to the point where it starts to impinge on another person’s rights. This is where it begins to get murky, clouded and blurred. Where does your autonomy start and finish?

This year we have witnessed a global pandemic, a tiny virus that has swept the world and caused sickness and death. It has hit the elderly hardest. The New Zealand Government asked us to become the "team of five million" and stay in our homes to protect one another. Many New Zealanders are fit and well, and had little to fear but we still gave up liberty, money, jobs, seeing family and travelling for each other and mainly because we value our elderly. We put their lives before our own and our Government chose life over economy. We gave up our autonomy in the blink of an eye for the good of our society.

It was difficult for many New Zealanders being in our homes under strict lockdown orders. It happened quickly with little warning. On a positive note, we were forced to slow down, spend time with family and take advantage of opportunities that are not usually available to us. However, for many of our neighbours, life in lockdown was not pleasant, it may have been terrifying and debilitating. This is what facing the end of our lives can be like too. For most New Zealanders it is a slowing down, a time to spend with precious ones and a change of priorities. For others it is scary, with physical and emotional changes. The answer is better care, better understanding and a team around you, perhaps not of five million, but people who have the right skills, services that can support you at home and loved ones making the time as special as possible.

You see individual choice, the need to have rights sounds better than it actually is in practice, especially when your rights may harm others. Legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia may sound like a good idea. People will just choose for themselves won’t they? There will be no pressure, they will feel well enough to make life and death decisions. The law will protect them because that is what laws do for our society? The problem is a law change applies to everyone, and may have unintended consequences for some. These consequences are risky, unable to be fully appreciated until too late and murky.

The work ‘palliative’ simply means ‘to cloak’ in Latin. Palliative care is not a death sentence, it is a lifeline to professionals and services who work with those facing life-limiting illness. It may be provided by your GP, the practice nurse, a carer who comes into your home or a specialist service. Palliative care can be shown to you by your neighbour, your friends, hairdresser, anyone with a kind smile and warm words. It is not complex, it is not judgmental, and it is care that meets your needs as best it can in whatever circumstance. No law can achieve that, especially one that is black and white with no room for error.

Since the time of writing, Amanda Landers has become a member on the committee of 'Risky Law', which is an incorporated society of Vote No. She did not hold this position when she wrote this piece. 

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