Judy Bailey on euthanasia

Judy Bailey considers a new book dealing with the referendum subject of assisted dying

I’ve had too many close encounters with death and dying lately. I guess it comes with the territory as you hit the slide side of 60. Too many funerals. There have been the inevitable losses of parents, something for which, despite the inevitability, you’re never quite prepared. And the sudden passing of those mates you thought you’d grow old with. Each of those deaths has been unique. Some have been swift and merciful, others harrowing and haunting. There has been beauty and compassion to be found in all of them. They have all brought something special to those intimately involved in the caring process. I have come to realise it's not death I fear but the suffering that comes with it for so many. For there has been suffering, suffering no amount of palliative care can allay.

In just under two months we will be asked, in a public referendum, to choose whether or not to support the End of Life Choice Act. The Act will open the door to Euthanasia or medically assisted dying, for people in the final stages of a terminal illness. If more than 50 percent of us vote ‘Yes’, then the Act will become law. It's one of the most important and far reaching legal decisions we will make in our lifetime.


Caralise Trayes's book, The Final Choice: Is assisted dying the answer?, comes along at an opportune time. 

Trayes is a journalist of 10 years' experience, formerly at Fairfax Media. Her style is chatty and generally straightforward. Her book consists of a brief history and summary of the Act and a series of interviews with those whose views cover both ends of the spectrum, with lawyers, advocates, palliative care specialists, those who have actively considered taking their own lives, and those who will be at the sharp end of implementing the law if and when it passes.

The right to end suffering is what David Seymour says his bill is all about. Trayes's book voices concerns over whether the bill has been clearly thought through. Are there enough safeguards against coercion? Will euthanasia become normalised? Could it become economically expedient? What becomes of the mental health of those required to administer the fatal dose?

A number of overseas jurisdictions where euthanasia is legal - Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands among them - have reported an increase in requests for euthanasia as time goes on. The Belgians and the Dutch have now extended their law to cover children and people with dementia and mental illness. Before Covid, the Netherlands parliament was about to consider draft legislation that proposed anyone over 70 could have assisted dying irrespective of any medical necessity. The proposed law is targeted towards people who are lonely, bereaved or "disattached".

What of the elderly and chronically disabled who may be feeling they are a burden to their families? Does the Act protect the vulnerable, the weak, the lonely? Will the 'right' to die ultimately become 'the duty' to die?

At the heart of the book is the question: why is it that people want to die?

Trayes interviews the head of Euthanasia Free NZ, Renee Joubert. He tells her, "The fear of dying is natural. But when people deal with the fear and get the care and support they need, the most natural thing is to want to live." So many of Trayes’ interviewees say the same thing. Disabled and seriously ill people need much more support. They need access to equipment and care to improve their quality of life.

Professor Rod Macleod, an internationally respected expert in palliative care, reckons introducing assisted dying without improving end of life care is the wrong way round. In New Zealand only 50 percent of the funding for palliative care comes from the government, the rest is raised in the community. He says, "Imagine if someone said they’d pay for half your intensive care in a hospital but you’d have to fundraise the rest." He also points to the fact medical students spend 12 weeks learning about the beginning of life, yet they have only one lecture and a day in hospice for end of life training: "Its not suprising people are frightened about death. Even doctors are."

Trayes tells the story of Claire Freeman, a 42-year-old quadriplegic. She has considered travelling to Switzerland for assisted suicide. A car accident left her in a wheelchair. She has been through the darkest of times but has come through to lead a full and active life. She points out, "I see just about everyone who has a spinal cord injury in this country and for two to five years they are highly suicidal. They would choose this [to end their life]. And that makes me really angry. It's a hell of a shock (when you get injured). It's terrifying, but it gets better.”

Dr Huhana Hickey, a lawyer and advocate for the disabled, puts it succinctly: "Sometimes people will be given assisted dying when all they really needed was help to live."

You can see where Trayes is going with her book. The Final Choice is not a balanced piece of work. Space is not given to both sides of the argument. The opinions of those opposed to the Act far outweigh those in favour of it. Which is not to say those opinions in the book are flawed or less valuable; the concerns raised are valid, and it's a thought-provoking read, particularly in view of the momentous decision we have to make in September.

I have decided how I’ll vote in the referendum. My decision has not changed on reading this book. But I will be heading into that voting booth with a much clearer idea of why I’m voting the way I am.

The Final Choice by Caralise Trayes (Capture & Tell Media, $29.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.

* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand *

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