What is the number?
Anyone advocating for euthanasia or assisted suicide should have to answer this question: How many wrongful deaths is Parliament prepared to risk if these practices are legalised? What is the number? What is the acceptable error rate, where error means wrongful death?
This was one of the arguments we made last week in Parliament. I was there with my colleague, Dr Jane Silloway Smith, to present Maxim Institute’s oral submission to the Health Select Committee, as part of their inquiry into the ending of one’s life in New Zealand. Here’s a few parts of our presentation to the Committee members.
Our key point to the Select Committee was that our research has found that there is no safe way to legalise euthanasia or assisted suicide.
That means legalisation would be bad public policy, and it would be bad law.
Our submission drew from over two years of research into the international experience of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Despite the best intentions of lawmakers and the introduction of numerous safeguards into law, the practical evidence is that no safeguard is safe enough. For example, in Oregon, where assisted suicide is limited to those with a terminal diagnosis with 6 months or less to live, 7 people died last year after taking drugs prescribed in earlier years. Clearly, some of these people outlived their 6-month prognosis.
There’s also a deeper underlying problem. Legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide create inequality by creating two categories of people in society: One, those whose lives are treated as sufficiently valuable that they’re not allowed to access euthanasia or assisted suicide; and two, those whose lives bear some characteristic – whether it be a terminal diagnosis, having a disability, or contracting a chronic condition – that changes the value of that person’s life so that euthanasia or assisted suicide becomes an acceptable option for them.
This distinction can have shocking and deadly practical effects. It can exacerbate what are currently disappointing social and cultural realities of discrimination and marginalisation of the elderly, the sick and people with disabilities, turning them into both direct or indirect pressure to end their lives.
It can also create great tensions in our collective efforts at suicide prevention by validating – in law – the idea that suicide is a reasonable, or even brave, response to suffering.
We acknowledged that both sides of this debate are motivated by compassion, but it’s the responsibility of our MPs to think about the best rules for our whole community. They don’t make individualised decisions, and when they consider a far-reaching change, like this one, they have to think about just how widely the effects could be felt on all people, not just on particular cases that may be highlighted. They have to consider not just those who supposedly benefit from a law change, but those who would wear the negative effects as well.
It was a great privilege to present our research to the Select Committee, and we look forward to hearing how they respond to our opening question.