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Philip Patston: Looking deeper into the EOLC debate – there’s more than meets the eye

26 Aug 2020 12:16 PM | Philip Patston (Administrator)

Diversity New Zealand's Managing Director, Philip Patston, looks at arguments about NZ's End-of-Life Choice Act and uncovers issues not usually discussed.

As the debate about the EOLC Act continues, one thing that has become patently obvious to me is that the arguments against are mainly founded on emotion, while those for the Act are, in the main, factual.

Opponents speak of coercion, the “slippery slope”, saving healthcare dollars and (somewhat humorously) the possible likelihood that someone’s life expectancy might increase after they have died with medical assistance. They also imply that, once someone has chosen MAID, they will somehow then have a duty to go through with it and will not be allowed to change their mind.

Apart from some of these claims being ludicrous, particularly the latter two, they all tap into emotions of fear, helplessness and a lack of agency over one’s life (or death). They appeal to worst-case scenarios that lead people to think that the Act, if in force, will somehow be a trojan horse for the cruellest of human nature to rear up and eliminate the weakest in society.

Comparatively, those in favour of dignity in dying veer towards impartial facts, for example, the Act applies ONLY to those who are imminently dying and are experiencing unbearable pain and suffering; and that MAID is a personal choice, enables a dignified and compassionate death and leaves families with good memories. These assertions are able to be proven by consulting the legislation and listening to the personal stories of those who have been involved in assisted dying.

Returning to the nay-sayers, there is one argument proffered that I find particularly disturbing: It is that disabled, elderly and mentally unwell people will use the Act to “escape” abuse, neglect, loneliness and a lack of support provided by health, disability and mental health services. I said these arguments are disturbing – actually, I think they are insidious.

Let’s get the obvious untruth out of the way first. Being disabled, elderly or mentally unwell are conditions that, on their own, will not make one eligible to use the provisions of the Act in Aotearoa. Period. No argument. The rules do not apply.

The more treacherous part of this argument is that it serves to conflate two very different issues: The appalling ineffectiveness of support services and the right to choose a good death.

Having relied on disability support services myself for more than 50 years – and often having to spend months or sometimes years fighting to get even my basic needs met – I totally agree. These services are appallingly underfunded and badly executed. It’s about the only fact to which opponents refer. This is not, however, grounds to deny me or any other person in Aotearoa the right to choice at the end of life.

The inefficacy of these services is underscored by the fact that medical advances are keeping more and more premature babies, seriously injured accident victims and elderly people alive (often without choice), but sentencing them to a life of inadequate support and low value. And then EOLC opponents would want these “lucky people” to also suffer a painful, intolerable death.

I have this to say to those who oppose my right to choose in the last six months of my life: If you are scared that I may want to escape a life I didn’t choose and the hardship caused by our poorly-run support system, please put your energy into lobbying to better that system. As for the end of my life, that’s my choice within the bounds of the humane End-of-Life Choice legislation.

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