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Seeking compassion, respect and dignity for all

On 14 November, the Northland Age published a letter from MP Maryan Street written in response to a column I wrote back in October, in which I expressed my concern that Street’s Bill to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia would undermine the high value the law currently places on the protection of human life. While agreeing with me that “all human life is valuable,” Street argued that her Bill is predicated on a higher value: that of the “right of an autonomous, self-determining adult to be autonomous and self-determining about the manner and moment of their death, if they are suffering a terminal illness or an irreversible condition, which, in their OWN view, makes their life unbearable.” 

It’s not difficult to see where Street is coming from in declaring the right of an individual to make decisions and take actions that affect their own lives. Living, as we do, in a liberal democracy, most of us would place a high degree of importance on individual freedom. 

And yet, most of us would agree that there are times when it is necessary for the law to limit some of our individual freedoms for the sake of the well-being and safety of all of us. There are many things that we may individually want to do that our law prohibits because those things would be too dangerous for society: driving without a seatbelt; making major home renovations without council consent; or buying alcohol under the age of 18. To be a functioning, flourishing society, we need laws that provide for our common good—not just ones that fit our individual desires.

So what’s the danger to society that comes from allowing people to decide how and when they die? The danger is that legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia puts the lives of the vulnerable sick and disabled at even greater risk than they already face. 

In countries and states where assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legalised, evidence abounds of people “choosing” to die as a result of indirect pressures. The elderly and lonely receive subtle hints from doctors and welfare workers that their situations would be better were they to die; those in need of constant and intense care feel indirect pressure from loved ones to kill themselves rather than put their family and friends through the agony that can be caring for and watching them die. 

Legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia changes the way we as a society think about the lives and deaths of the terminally ill and the disabled, and no protections or provisos put into place in any jurisdiction have been able to protect the vulnerable from the societal and cultural forces that have accompanied such legislation.

Thus, I remain concerned that Street’s Bill would do more harm than good, and that it would not provide the “compassion, respect and dignity” she seeks. 

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