The foundational message of assisted dying

By Danielle van Dalen March 17, 2020

I’m sure many of us have had that moment, where we realise we’ve been talking about something and not realised that someone else is listening in and has been hurt by what we’ve said. It seems to me that the conversation around assisted dying can be like this. While euthanasia and assisted suicide are generally proposed as a compassionate response to the end of life, we can forget that these proposals are also heard by many vulnerable people who hear that society agrees with their worst thought: their life might not be worth living after all.

I was reminded of this late last month when Germany’s highest court ruled that there is a right to assisted suicide services, a “right… guaranteed in all stages of a person’s existence.” This ruling “encompasses a right to self-determined death,” meaning assisted suicide is allowed in all cases, with no limitations on age, capacity, disability, health, or anything else. As one commentator stated, “the German people now have the right to kill themselves at any time and for any reason.”

Society agrees with their worst thought: their life might not be worth living after all.

Of course, here in New Zealand parliament passed the End of Life Choice Act last year, and it’s now awaiting the referendum to determine whether or not it will become law. While the German ruling is much broader than the End of Life Choice Act and its eligibility criteria to determine who can and who cannot be assisted to die, there is an alignment in the attitude behind these legislative shifts.

That is, both the German ruling and the End of Life Choice Act introduce a fundamental shift, in law, to the way that we view and value life. They suggest that life is disposable, and when it no longer fits what we deem “good,” nobody should bat an eye if someone simply chooses to give it up. It’s based on a premise that our choices are always made freely and assumes that we are all independent, autonomous beings and able to make choices free from external pressure (whether those pressures are explicit or implicit). It assumes that our choices won’t impact the choices and lives of others. But that isn’t the reality.

Legislation is written for everyone. It’s not just for those few “best case” scenarios where someone is highly independent, educated, has capacity to decide, and hasn’t been pressured in any way – whatever the eligibility criteria is like. It’s also for those people whose families are messy, whose doctors make mistakes. It’s for people who change their minds, and for people who already struggle to feel they are valued members of society. It’s those people who we, as a society, have a responsibility to stand alongside in solidarity, assuring them that we deeply value their life and want to help them walk through the difficult days – rather than handing them a form to sign.

They suggest that life is disposable

Later this year, each of us will be asked to vote in the referendum on the End of Life Choice Act. I urge you to consider the future effect of this legislation carefully; in all lives across our society.

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