To die with dignity

Lecretia Seales, a Wellington lawyer who had an incurable brain disease, died today. She was 42. Through out the last stages of her life she fought to have the right to die a peaceful death by lethal injection on her own terms, instead of potentially losing her dignity. The case has raised the issue in New Zealand of whether or not one should have that right. Three separate attempts to resolve it through the legislative processes of Parliament have all met with failure.

There are moral and ethical issues that any court considering such an issue should deal with.  It needs to be sure that it is not going to set such a legal precedent that could be reasonably challenged in a court of law.

I am of the opinion that there should be a process for those who wish to die to be able to do so legally. However there need to be strong checks to make sure that the person whose wish it is to die:

  • Is fully aware of the decision that they are making and able to comprehend it
  • Has signed something that has a prominent place on their medical file, expressly permitting them to be put to sleep
  • Has a doctor whose ethical suitability for administering the lethal injection has been certified, and that a process for such

It is not to say that euthanasia has always been conducted by in an ethically proper way, or for the right reasons. In wartime Germany the T4 programme was administered by the authorities with the intention of euthanasing people with incurable diseases, defects or were otherwise considered to be medically unsound. The churches in Germany railed against it, and in a rare show of concession, in a country where dissent was not tolerated, Hitler ordered the programme to be stopped. Unfortunately by the time it was terminated T4 had given rise to the gas based methods of extermination that were used in the Final Solution against the Jews and “undesirables”.

There are definitely individuals, organizations and institutions that will oppose the passage of any legislation supporting the right to die, possibly even going so far as to launch court action to stop it. One of those organizations is Right To Life, which is mainly disposed towards discouraging abortions as a medical procedure but which has also come out against people being allowed to die by voluntary euthanasia. Although these organizations are right to be concerned about the ethics, there is the potential for unwanted interference in very private matters. It is one thing to “moralize” about euthanasia as a person not suffering an incurable illness that is slowly degrading their life, but quite another altogether to be the person actually suffering, actually watching their lives fade before their eyes.

I hope I never have to make this decision on behalf of a loved one, but I would be guided by what they want first and foremost. Then I would worry about how to carry their wishes out legally. And the moralizing people will just have to live with it.



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