Short Cuts Info | Making people vulnerable
How many wrongful deaths are New Zealanders prepared to risk if these practices are legalised? What is the number?
What is the acceptable error rate, where error means wrongful death?
Laws are for all people, not only a select few who might want them. Laws are not made in a vacuum, and we should think about those vulnerable groups who will likely bear the brunt of the negative effects as well as those who will supposedly benefit.
Legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide would affect large numbers of vulnerable people
Many people are vulnerable to euthanasia or assisted suicide laws. These include people with disabilities, the elderly, the chronically ill, and people with depression.1
In fact, when we talk about those who are facing the end of their lives, doctors and researchers tell us that vulnerable people include those who:
– Have difficulties communicating;
– Have unrelieved symptoms or a distressing medical condition;
– Are fearful of illness and potential dependence; and/or
– Lack social and psychological supports.2
Legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide places these vulnerable people in a new category which will unavoidably allow for the perception that their lives are not worth living.3
No safeguard is sufficient to protect vulnerable people: the Oregon example
Oregon is held up as an exemplar of how the risks of assisted suicide can be contained legally. Their experience shows, however, that legalising assisted suicide exposes the vulnerable to being influenced, either directly or indirectly, into taking their own lives.4
– It is difficult to make a completely voluntary request for assisted suicide if the state has suggested it first. In Oregon patients on Medicaid (a state-funded health insurance for those with limited incomes) have received letters telling them that their request for cancer treatments have been turned down, but that the state will pay for their assisted suicide.5
– Monitoring how or why patients accessing assisted suicide take the lethal prescriptions their doctors had given them, or if they take them of their own volition, is minimal. In 75% of all assisted suicides in 2016, the Oregon Public Health Division has no information about who was present when the patient ingested the lethal drugs.6
– Legalising assisted suicide makes possible what was previously unthinkable. It suddenly creates a new yes/no question that every qualifying person who is dependent would then be forced to ask themselves. Am I too much of a burden? Should I end my life to make it easier on the people who care for me? In 2016, 49% of those who received assistance in dying cited being a “burden to family and friends” as one reason for doing so.7
Reviews refute claims that vulnerable people won’t be at risk
Some studies argue that vulnerable people won’t be put at risk by legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide,8 but nearly every court of law and governmental inquiry or commission that has reviewed these studies and cross-examined their authors have dismissed these claims. These include investigations in Washington,9 New York,10 the United Kingdom,11 Ireland,12 Ottawa,13 and France.14
1 B White and L Willmott, How should Australia regulate voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide? (Weston, ACT: Australia21 Limited, 2012), 18.
2 IG Finlay and R George, “Legal physician-assisted suicide in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in vulnerable groups; another perspective on Oregon’s data,” Journal of Medical Ethics (2011), 37: 171-174.
3 M K Dore, “Physician- Assisted Suicide: A Recipe for Elder Abuse and the Illusion of Personal Choice,” The Vermont Bar Journal, (Winter 2011), 2-3.
4 M K Dore, “Physician- Assisted Suicide: A Recipe for Elder Abuse and the Illusion of Personal Choice.”
5 W Smith, “’Right to die’ can become a ‘duty to die,’” Telegraph (20 February 2009), (accessed 3 June 2014).
6 Oregon Public Health Division, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2015 [Annual Report – Year 18] (Salem: Oregon Public Health, 2016), (accessed 1 June 2016).
7 Oregon Public Health Division, Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act – 2015 [Annual Report – Year 18].
8 M.P. Battin et al, “Legal physician-assisted dying in Oregon and the Netherlands: evidence concerning the impact on patients in ’vulnerable’ groups,” Journal of Medical Ethics, (2007), 33:591-597
9 Washington v Glucksberg, 521 US 702 (1997).
10 Vacco v Quill, 521 US 793 (1997); New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, When death is sought. Assisted suicide and euthanasia in the medical context (New York: New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, May 1994).
11 Pretty v United Kingdom, No. 2346/02, ECHR 2002-III; R (on the application of Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice,  UKSC 38,  3 All E. R; P Lewis and I Black, The effectiveness of legal safeguards in jurisdictions that allow assisted dying [The Commission on Assisted Dying Briefing Paper] (London: Demos, 2012).
12 Fleming v Ireland Appeal No. 019/2013, Supreme Court of Ireland [IESC 19] (2013).
13 J Nicol, M Tiedemann, D Valiquet, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: International Experiences (Revised 25 October 2013) (Ottawa: Library of Parliament, 2013).
14 D Sicard, Penser solidairement la fin de vie: Rapport a Francois Hollande, President de la Republique Francaise (Paris: Commission de Reflexion sur la Fin de Vie en France, 2012).