Photo: Paul EscourtTuesday’s Close Up programme featured a compelling and moving interview with John Pollock MB, ChB, MRCP[UK], FRNZCGP. Sixty-one-year-old Dr Pollock is a general practitioner. He is in the business of saving lives. But Dr Pollock, who has never smoked, is suffering from terminal lung cancer and wants the right to seek help to end his own life before his suffering becomes unbearable to him and, more importantly, to his family. To offer him that help would, under current New Zealand law, be a crime. Yesterday the New Zealand Herald reprinted a letter which Dr Pollock had written earlier to the magazine New Zealand Doctor. In it he presents his arguments for the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia in this country. It is well worth reading. I support Dr Pollock in his bid to have assisted voluntary euthanasia made legal for terminally ill patients in New Zealand. My argument follows.
This is an area where precise definitions are essential. The critical word in the euthanasia debate is voluntary. I am talking about a situation where a person wants to die and seeks the assistance of others to commit suicide. I am not talking about killing someone who does not want to die, or is unsure, or is incapable of making a decision or expressing a wish. Those are separate and quite different issues. I am talking about a situation where a person wants to die and seeks the assistance of others to commit suicide. Voluntary euthanasia. The next thing that has to be said is that this is not and must not be considered to be a religious issue. It is a legal issue, an issue for the state. Those whose religious beliefs preclude the idea of taking one’s own life are entitled to hold to those beliefs, but they are not entitled to impose them on others.
Religious belief is personal, subjective and arbitrary. It cannot and should not be the basis of lawmaking. Voluntary euthanasia is a legal issue, an issue for the state. Does the state have the right to tell a person whose life has become an intolerable burden to them that they cannot end it and cannot seek the assistance of others to end it? I would have thought not. I would have thought that was an intolerable intrusion on the rights of responsible adults to determine their own destiny. At the heart of my personal philosophy is the simple belief that everything should be permitted that does not harm someone else. Where there is no victim there should be no crime. If you apply this philosophy to euthanasia, killing someone who did not want to die, or was unsure, or incapable of making a decision or expressing a wish, would clearly constitute harm – involuntary rather than voluntary euthanasia.
And harm would include failing to ensure that that person was fixed in their resolve to die or that no reasonable alternative existed to helping them take their life. So we need to have safeguards to ensure that no life is unnecessarily or prematurely ended. It’s here that the opponents of voluntary euthanasia introduce the concept of the ‘slippery slope’ – legalise voluntary euthanasia today and we’ll be bumping off the old, the infirm and the handicapped tomorrow. And if we aren’t actually bumping them off, we’ll be putting pressure on them to do the job themselves. It seems to me that this is an argument based on the premise that, as a society, we are incapable of self-regulation or control, that restraint must inevitably lead to excess. It’s an argument based on the idea that we cannot draw lines. Yet all of our lawmaking is based on the drawing of lines, on the placing of limits. All of our laws say: this far and no further.
The ‘slippery slope’ argument is, quite simply, a denial of the possibility of the rule of law. With voluntary euthanasia, as with anything else, we are capable of drawing lines, of setting limits, of imposing sanctions. If we are not, then we are less than human, less than civilised. What to me is less than human, less than civilised, is the overweening arrogance that allows one human being to say to another: despite your pain, despite the fact that your life has become intolerable to you, despite your cry for help, despite your plea for mercy, I deny you the right to die, because your death would be an affront to my beliefs, my values, my conscience, my religion. That, to me, is as good an example of doing harm, as you might hope to find.