NZ Herald 2 January 2016
It is not the happiest of subjects for New Year, but it is one that could make the year memorable. Some time in 2016 we are going to have a serious discussion about life and death. If it feels like we’ve already had one since the Herald made Lecretia Seales its New Zealander of the Year, wait until Parliament’s select committee starts hearing carefully argued ethical submissions on the right to die. Thinking-people are going to be moved.
When I first wrote on this subject last year, just after Ms Seales’ case was in court, I admitted that I found the idea of euthanasia repulsive but I didn’t know why. Gordon McLauchlan sent me a note saying anybody who thinks this issue of human rights is a simple one is very foolish. He also referred me to a recently published monograph in the Australian Quarterly Essay series.
It is a beautifully written work by an Australian doctor and writer Karen Hitchcock, and it is not about euthanasia at all.
It is about assisted dying, a phrase euthanasia advocates are trying to co-opt for their own purpose, but it really means helping people to a natural death. It means all possible pain relief, of course, but much more.
For palliative care specialists such as Karen Hitchcock, it means an attitude to the frailties, needs and often the indignities of near death that treats the person with care, honesty and genuine respect for this phase of life that will come to us all.
Reading the discussion on these pages over the past few weeks, I have often wondered whether those who claim to have witnessed agonised, excruciating deaths are really being honest with us. In response to one such letter, a Ngaio doctor, Sinead Donnelly, wrote, “In more than 23 years as a doctor caring for the dying I have never witnessed what [the correspondent] has experienced. Such distress for the patient and the family can be avoided by excellence in palliative care.”