Friday, September 25, 2020

Why is New Zealand considering assisted dying during a pandemic?

Alex Schadenberg
Executive Director, Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

New Zealand is having a referendum on euthanasia as part of its October 17 federal election.

New Zealand's parliament passed a euthanasia bill in November 2019 by a vote of 69 to 51. To obtain the votes to pass the Act the government agreed to a referendum.

Robyn Hunt, a joint coordinator of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet Aotearoa, wrote an article that was published yesterday in The Spinoff in New Zealand asking: Why are we considering assisted dying during a pandemic?

Robyn Hunt
Hunt writes:
Considering assisted dying in the middle of a deadly world pandemic seems counterintuitive. We are fortunate to live in a country that has worked hard to preserve life, has recognised that certain groups are greatly at risk and tried, largely successfully, to protect them. But we are to vote in a referendum for the End of Life Choice Act in just a few weeks, so it is important to carefully consider its implications in this context.
Hunt explains her concerns:
There is no way to get around the fact that this is bad law, badly written. The worst of it, from the point of view of the disability community, is that of the eligibility criteria. They are very loose. Supporters of the act believe that discounting age, mental illness and disability provides protection for the groups who expressed concern during the inquiry and the progress of the legislation.

But there is no bright line in real life between disability and terminal illness. The supposed exclusion of disability is meaningless, as the disability community understands only too well. Baroness Jane Campbell put it very clearly when she said, “The distinction between disability and terminal illness is a false one: for many disabled people a chest infection is a terminal illness unless treated. The disabled person dependent on a ventilator is terminally ill if the ventilator is switched off. I am many years over my prognosis end date, along with countless others who have a progressive condition.”
Hunt continues with the lived experience of people with disabilities.
Disability and illness easily become conflated. MS and motor neuron disease are impairments that result in illness. Severe illness brings impairment. The two are conflated in the bill and not understood by its supporters or the general public. “Incurable disease” has been described as code for “disability”.

There’s a sort of existential dread surrounding disability, a fear of perceived pain and suffering that causes perfect strangers to approach people I know, particularly those who use wheelchairs, and say, “If I were like you I would kill myself,” with absolutely no thought of the effect those remarks would have on the disabled person.

There’s the “someone else having to wipe your bum” test that makes many non-disabled people think death is preferable. Yet I know people who live such lives already with grace and dignity, and manage full lives on their own terms, when access to quality support allows them. But the negative societal attitudes subtly devalue lives and can grind people down.
She then comments on the subtle pressures.
Societal and personal pressure can be extremely subtle. Can we be absolutely sure that nobody would ever choose assisted dying because of pressure from another person or group of people? Or from constant negative social pressure and the feeling that they are a worthless burden? They are constantly reminded of their precariousness as people who may need considerable support of various kinds, and often have to struggle simply to get what they need.

Disabled people can be made to feel worthless by a deeply ableist society. New Zealand has a very high youth suicide rate yet we have no record of how many of them are disabled.
Hunt comments on native people with disabilities.
The act is highly individualistic. It holds the right of the individual above the rights of the group, a concept that I know makes many Māori and disabled people feel uneasy. As one disabled Māori leader says, “Why should Māori trust the state on the topic of euthanasia, when we can’t even trust the state to provide adequate and equitable health care, education and housing?” Māori and Pacific disabled people have less access to disability services and supports than other disabled people so that level of cynicism is hardly surprising.
She explains how trust has been eroded for people with disabilities.
Disabled people do not trust a system that already allows violence, abuse and deaths to go unreported and often unacknowledged. Families who kill disabled members are treated more leniently by the courts than others who kill family members. There is talk of “mercy” killings. Of course situations like this are complicated, and can’t be “fixed” by a simple solution. But disabled people don’t trust a system that so often fails them.
She explains that mental health and palliative care services are lacking.
Our mental health services are failing people who need them, and months of lockdown and Covid uncertainty have not helped. The health system is also struggling to meet the needs of the poorest New Zealanders, and in particular children and Māori and Pacific peoples.

In some parts of New Zealand, those approaching the end of their lives have access to world-class palliative care. Unfortunately that isn’t the case everywhere. The option of quality palliative care ought to be readily available before we consider euthanasia or assisted suicide.
She then comments on the fear of wrongful death.
I’ve always found it comforting and appropriate that one of the reasons for abolishing capital punishment was the possibility, and proven occurrence, of wrongful death. Ironically, there is no protection against it in this act. The worst criminals have better protection than some of our most at-risk citizens.
Hunt concludes by stating the concerns of the disability community.
Despite what supporters still claim, opposition to assisted suicide in New Zealand is not always based on religious grounds. While some disabled opposition will be based on sincerely held faith-based views, the majority of disabled people here and internationally are opposed on the grounds of hard-fought and hard-won human rights protections that they are desperate to protect from the erosion this act allows.

Disabled people live on the front lines of the health system in a society that increasingly devalues old, ill and disabled people. Most of the reasons people give for wanting assisted suicide are really disability issues like dependence and independence, without understanding that we are all interdependent. Supporters of the act call for choice. Disabled people want social justice.
More articles on the New Zealand euthanasia referendum.

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