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Bill Ralston: Why the euthanasia bill doesn't go far enough

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New Zealand's euthanasia bill is a step in the right direction, but it could do more.

Please don’t kill me. That was my first reaction to the End of Life Choice Bill that the polls show most of the population agrees with. Of course, although I’m in my mid-sixties, I’m reasonably hale and hearty and surrounded by people I know and love in a warm house by the sea. I am quite prepared to stick around for a while.

Yet under the proposed law, if I were diagnosed with a terminal disease, and two doctors were willing to certify that I would not survive another six months, I could put up my shaking hand and ask for a clinical ejector seat that would fire me speedily and, one hopes, painlessly into the great unknown.

The key word here is “painlessly”. Going stoned unto death has some attraction. However, too often in my experience of the natural departure of aged friends and parents, the medical fraternity cannot always contain the pain of the slowly dying. That would not be nice. Who wants to end a long and fruitful life in agony?

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The presence of high levels of pain that cannot be abated should be one of the criteria for a doctor stepping in, at your request, to metaphorically turn out the lights.

The specified six-month clause for recipients of the gift of euthanasia is more of a worry. If a specialist told me I had less than half a year to go, but I would be quite comfortable for that period, I’d like to think I would have a party for everyone I knew and liked. I would milk the drama, spend the last of my accumulated savings on fun and eventually fade into blissful, natural oblivion.

A dying friend and colleague did exactly that. Knowing he had a terminal condition, he arranged a pre-wake for himself in a waterfront bar. All his mates turned up, gave eulogies, and we had a whale of a time.

The fact that under the proposed law you would have to be actually dying within six months to be “assisted” to the other side is unfortunate. There are people who have grossly debilitating diseases who cannot face going on for a long, indeterminate period.

One of my first girlfriends, a determined person even when young, surfaced in the media years later because she had committed suicide rather than submit to the slow, total loss of bodily control. She recorded a farewell message and explanation of what she was doing. The police charged her partner with contributing to her death because he allegedly provided the means by which she could end her life. A jury, thankfully, acquitted him.

It is sad that she was forced to end her life alone in a gruesome and probably painful way, rather than with a medically administered drug that would have eased her into that good night. Her taped testimony showed that she was sane, had thought her act through and had concluded that life was no longer worth living because of her devastating illness.

Where does this bill leave a tetraplegic who cannot face the thought of being trapped forever within his or her frozen body? Under the proposed law, they cannot be “assisted” to die.

Personally, as long as I could read and watch Netflix, I would probably be happy to stay on, because my customary position is prone on a couch. But I can understand there are people who, because of physical infirmity, no longer wish to cling to life.

The right to a medically assisted death needs to be expanded beyond the bill’s present scope and made law.

This column was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.