During the COVID-19 pandemic, we see on the news videos of people being rushed in and out of the ICU, coughing and wheezing and having to endure extreme suffering and a poor quality of life. More than 700 thousand people have perished from the pandemic. These slow and painful deaths become more visible and closer to us than ever. COVID-19 has made us realise that drawn-out deaths are occurring almost everywhere; however, people have been suffering even before COVID-19. Euthanasia, which provides a ‘quick and peaceful’ ‘death with dignity’, can be a potential solution to draw-out deaths. Legalising euthanasia in New Zealand would provide the patient with an option to pass away without any distress, allow for nature to run its course, and allocate resources most efficiently.
Euthanasia, currently is legalised in New Zealand; however, it is at it’s beginning stages only. Euthanasia can prevent a certain amount of cruelty and the condition of life for old people who are terminally ill can be made more humane. How so? Well, think of this. Lesley Martin, the author of To Die Like a Dog who is also a euthanasia campaigner, was arrested and sent to jail for 15 months when she assisted her mother’s suicide in 2004. Her mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and possibly even dementia, did not recognise Lesley or anyone at all during her time in ICU. She was suffering from countless other irritable illnesses that come with old age and she wanted to escape from all of these horrible problems that gave her a poor quality of life. However, she could not die because the doctors had sworn in the code of conduct to never do harm; therefore, they had to keep her alive for the last two months, three months, or even year of her life. This process that should have been a quick death dragged on for Lesley’s mother because of modern medical technologies that are able to keep people alive for longer than they would naturally survive. This is when the situation becomes cruel and inhumane. For the last moments of her life, she was suffering, but the technology prevented her death.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 25 that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequately.’ Keeping terminally ill patients alive is a violation of human rights because it does not provide them an adequate standard of living. Even if they are under great care and eating great food, they are still suffering and having a poor quality of life since many sufferers can’t move, can’t talk and can’t do anything! Many people interpret Article 25 as only entailing the right to life, but in fact, the full article suggests that ‘They have the right to a healthy and comfortable life.’ But having life prolonged is not always a positive thing if it is done to someone under immense pain which can negatively affect the patient’s mental health.
So what is the definition of life? I came across a poem called Geriatric Ward, a lyric poem written by Phoebe Hesketh, which discusses a healthcare system that takes care of old people with illnesses like dementia and compares it to a cold prison. In the verse “Do they have souls?”, she asks herself if the old people in the geriatric ward still have ‘souls’ and that spark of ‘life’ in them. Hesketh thinks they still count as ‘alive’ but their ‘souls’, which are
what makes them lively, are lost and therefore they can be classified as dead. The phrase “Count pulses of breathing bags whose directions are lost” shows that the patients are still able to eat, drink and respire, yet they are ‘dead’ because their souls are gone.
In biology, there is a term deemed ‘natural selection’ which is where an organism adapts
through reproduction and death to develop immunity to a particular disease or to adapt to an environment. However, there is nothing natural about elongating someone’s life using technology, especially just for the last few months of their life. Many terminally ill patients nowadays are suffering from diseases and illnesses that are incurable like late-stage cancer and different forms of dementia. Using technology to sustain patients’ last moments also creates stress on the hospitals and ICU departments. Research conducted by Medicare estimated that 20-30 per cent of money the New Zealand government spends on healthcare has little to no impact at all. This is because most of this money is spent on the heavily expensive type of pieces of equipment needed to keep terminally ill patients alive like ventilators. I am not saying that we should lower the standards and quality of care ICU patients receive, but instead I am simply suggesting that rather than using resources on someone who has no cure for their illness, we should give those resources to someone who needs them. This term in economics is called ‘opportunity cost’, which is about the choice and the sacrifices we have to make in deciding to help one person over another. Then, we will be able to use our resources better and get the most out of helping people.
One of the biggest reasons for people opposing euthanasia in New Zealand is the fear that it might lead from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia and that the safeguards ‘just do not work.’ I agree with the safeguards proposed by the New Zealand government in the ‘End of Life Choice’ bill that is being assessed this year. As the bill suggests, I believe that the patient must be a senior citizen (65 and over) to be given access to euthanasia. The patient also has to be terminally ill and in severe pain. In addition to the patient being mentally competent, I believe that this euthanasia has to gain approval of at least two independent doctors and two nurses who looked after the patient and know her/him well. If that safeguard is implemented into the system, I think ‘death with dignity’ could be achieved. As it is a more natural process of dying, euthanasia takes the suffering away from suffering patients and gives new meaning to ‘life.’
Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, 'Death and dying - Euthanasia', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/document/30429/to-die-like-a-dog (accessed 6 June 2021) Story by Ruth McManus and Rosemary Du Plessis, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 16 May 2018
End of Life Choice Act. Ministry of Health NZ. (n.d.). https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/regulation-health-and-disability-system/end-life-choice-act.
Nations, United. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations, United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948, www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
About Emma BaldwinEmma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, et al. “Geriatric Ward by Phoebe Hesketh.” Poem Analysis, 21 May 2021, https://poemanalysis.com/phoebe-hesketh/geriatric-ward/
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, February 3). Natural selection. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/natural-selection
MediLexicon International. (n.d.). Euthanasia and assisted suicide: What are they and what do they mean? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/182951.