Euthanasia in the Context of Sick Societies

by Barbara Sumner Burstyn
April 13, 2004

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* Editor's Note: Dissident Voice has been pleased to publish Barbara Burstyn's New Zealand Herald columns since last summer. This is Burstyn's last column with The Herald. Her column was terminated by The Herald, whose explanation was simply that her work “suffered from a disconnect to issues of the day.” More about that in the April 13 entry of my weblog. We leave it to readers of this column to judge whether it lacks "a disconnect to the issues of the day."

It's euthanasia time again. With the guilty verdict in the trial of Lesley Martin, and Act MP Deborah Coddington's odd denial of involvement in, but endorsement of, the death of tetraplegic lawyer Michael Crew 16 years ago, euthanasia is back on the social agenda.

While Deborah Coddington's involvement with Michael Crew was not publicly known, one wonders if her announcement was pre-emptive politics, designed to stave of some future accusation and if she would have responded differently had the Martin verdict gone the other way.

That aside, she said Michael Crew was the owner of his own life and that it was his alone to take - ignoring the fact that he needed considerable help to complete his act of taking.

Deborah Coddington is correct, if you view life in a narrow, born-alone, die-alone kind of way. But set aside the argument of an individual's right to choose to die for a moment and consider this question. How would legalized euthanasia change our society? Specifically, how would it affect those who are terminally ill but don't want to be euthanased, the aged, disabled or beyond functioning?

In the United States, where euthanasia is also a hot topic, disability rights groups are joining forces to fight euthanasia and change the dialogue that surrounds it, from the religious inference of redemptive suffering to more secular debates, such as the appropriateness of neo-eugenics and the rise of the so-called futile-care theory.

The latter would allow doctors to unilaterally refuse a patient's request for life-sustaining treatment, based on the perceived "quality" of that patient's life.

Disabled activist group Not Dead Yet says that while euthanasia is described as compassionate, legalized medical killing, it is really about a deadly double-standard for people with severe disabilities.

Certainly you cannot enact a law without a standard. While proponents scream choice, doctors need something more concrete, a line in the sand of suffering after which killing someone becomes acceptable.

And once the government has taken that first step of acquiescing to the supposed will of the people in legalizing euthanasia, what is to stop slippage from the terminally ill to the non-terminally ill, to people with disabilities?

If this seems far-fetched, don't forget it has already been done. In 1933 the German Medical Association legalized physician-assisted suicide. Starting with competent patients with terminal illnesses who requested it, it quickly moved on to mentally incompetent patients and, eventually, to anyone economically or ideologically unprofitable to the state.

Between 1933 and 1941, more than 70,000 "futile or terminal" patients were killed in German hospitals.

A historical aberration? Maybe. But, as Dr Anneke Maendel has pointed out, data from the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, shows that in 1995 almost 1000 deaths were due to active euthanasia without the request of the patient.

The Dutch study concluded that the number of patients killed without their consent had increased by 50 per cent over a five-year period, and that adequate regulation was not possible.

And then, of course, there is the issue of suicide. Take the pro-euthanasia argument of individual choice a step further and you will have to end all opposition to suicide. After all, that fatal act is a personal choice all the way.

Perhaps it is this, the essential dichotomy of euthanasia, that is the real issue - on the one hand, it is positioned as the ultimate choice in a free society, while in reality, euthanasia has the potential to be the ultimate solution to the problem of society's human burdens.

This was starkly played out in the Lesley Martin trial. Martin, who has portrayed herself as a staunch pro-euthanasia campaigner, based her defence on her personal state, the level of her personal burden and the concomitant exhaustion she suffered.

Which begs the question: if she had just had access to or accepted more help and had enough sleep would her mother have lived considerably longer?

People like Lesley Martin and Deborah Coddington want us to view euthanasia in a vacuum of personal rights, as a neutral option, bleached of its impact on society. But it is, in fact, deeply value-laden and our support, or otherwise, reflects the cultural, economical, ethical, spiritual and moral framework of individuals and our society.

So while it's true that we own our own lives, each of us is inextricably connected to the other and there are times when the greater good must triumph over individual freedoms.

This is one of those times. One of the indicators of a civilized society is how well it cares for its weakest members.

Legalizing the removal of humans because they do not fit what experience shows would become an increasingly narrow definition of functioning is a form of eugenics, a dangerous and destructive belief system that will slip from the aged, infirm and terminally ill to anyone with a disability, anyone who does not meet a state-endorsed standard of physical and mental wellbeing.

Ask yourself this: if your community supported euthanasia, if you knew that services, support, even tolerance for your infirmity, your disability, your pain and illness was a diminishing resource, what choice would you really have in your decision to accept your own euthanasia?

* This is my last Monday dialogue column for the New Zealand Herald. Thanks to those who have read and responded, often passionately, to the columns. It's been a pleasure.

Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a freelance writer who commutes between Montreal, Quebec and The Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. She writes a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald (www.nzherald.co.nz), and has contributed to a wide range of media. She can be reached at: barb@sumnerburstyn.com. Visit her website to read more of her work: www.sumnerburstyn.com/ © 2004 Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Other Articles by Barbara Sumner Burstyn


* Some One Else’s Filthy Backyard
* And Now For Some Good News
* Sating the Monster
* The A Word
* Replying to the American Embassy

* The Breast That Changed the World
* On Not Being Anti-American
* The New Underclass
Celestial Land Grabs and the Demise of Science
* When is a Democracy Not a Democracy?

* True Heroes Will Help Beggars Through Another Day
* The Sum Total of My Body Parts
* I Blame God
* Fresh Food Fear
* Starve the Beast
* Smoke and Mirrors: Fatal Weapons in US War Against Reality

* A GM Question or Two

* Hooker Look in Fashion as Porn Becomes de Rigueur

* The Twisted Logic of Mothers Who Abandon Mothering

* Only in America

* We Really are Living on the Dark Side of the Moon

* Viagra for Girls: Medical Light Bulbs Can't Switch off Relationship Woes

* No Room on the Balance Sheet for Truth or Humanity

* Working to Live has Been Overtaken by Living to Work




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