We deserve the whole story on euthanasia laws
Like New Zealand, some of our neighbours across the ditch have recently been debating whether to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide. As you may have heard, this conversation came to its climax a few weeks ago when the Victorian Parliament passed a bill to legalise euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS). It’s less well known that in the same week, the New South Wales Parliament voted to reject a similar bill.
If we want to be truly compassionate to every New Zealander we need to pay attention to all the evidence, not just that which is newsworthy.
Unsurprisingly, the Victorian vote received media attention. The opposite vote in New South Wales, however, barely rated a mention. In a time bound, competitive media environment, news producers can’t report everything that happens. Instead, we hear and read a selection of stories shaped by what producers and editors think will grab or hold our attention, meaning what makes the news is largely determined by what’s new or out of the ordinary.
I enjoy a good story as much as the next person, but it’s always important to make sure that we’re hearing the full version. Especially when it comes to matters as serious as euthanasia, we don’t want to get caught up in a particular narrative, and miss the wider context that gives a better view to the whole story.
Euthanasia is legal in only 5% of jurisdictions worldwide.
The news appeal of a “change” narrative means that many New Zealanders have heard a partial story about the two Australian decisions. Rather than hearing that euthanasia legislation was both passed and rejected in the same week, we heard that euthanasia is now legal in Victoria, falling into line with the examples of places like the Netherlands, Belgium, Oregon, and Canada.
With news narratives like this, you could be forgiven for thinking that euthanasia and assisted suicide is quickly becoming a common law around the world. The reality, however, is quite different. While it’s true that a number of jurisdictions, including ourselves, are asking what compassion at the end of a person’s life looks like, EAS is legal in only 5% of jurisdictions worldwide.
In fact, attempts to pass this kind of legislation are failing many more times than they are succeeding. In 2017 alone, New Mexico, Tasmania, Maine, Victoria, and New South Wales have all considered euthanasia or assisted suicide legislation. Only Victoria has voted it into law, the others deciding after long consideration that the risks are too great to allow the practice to be legal. The fact is, when most parliamentarians take a good look at benefits and risks of euthanasia and assisted suicide, they vote no.
The fact is, when most parliamentarians take a good look at benefits and risks of euthanasia and assisted suicide, they vote no.
If we want to be truly compassionate to every New Zealander we need to pay attention to all the evidence, not just that which is newsworthy. Once we get beyond the narrative, the issue becomes less about “being on the right side of history,” and more about how we can help people navigate the complex, human experience of disability, illness, and dying in the safest, most compassionate way possible.
A better response to this challenge would be increasing the availability of palliative care, respecting patients’ wishes around cessation of treatment, and improving diagnoses and treatment of depression in terminally ill patients. My reading of the evidence is that legalised euthanasia cannot safely be part of the answer.