Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide

The term euthanasia (derived from the Greek for good death) has come to mean the deliberate killing of sick or disabled persons for supposedly merciful reasons or mercy killing.

Although as an organisation ProLife NZ have decided to focus on the abortion issue, we believe it is important that people are informed on the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide and therefore we have put together this section of the website.

Generally people object to euthanasia and assisted suicide on the following grounds.

  • it is the deliberate killing of innocent human beings – a violation of the right to life
  • it is contrary to medical ethics, putting doctors in the role of killers
  • it assumes that the lives of the gravely ill and disabled are of less value than the lives of others.


Patient autonomy and the right to life

The case for euthanasia is often argued on the basis of autonomy – the patient’s freedom to make decisions about his or her own treatment. However, to invoke autonomy in this way involves a misunderstanding of the concept of autonomy, overlooking the principle that the patient’s freedom entails a responsibility to act ethically. While a patient is capable of giving valid consent, a doctor has no authority to treat the patient unless that consent is given. However, the patient cannot ethically refuse treatment with the intention to bring about his own death.

The ethical objection to suicide is reflected in law. In New Zealand, for compassionate reasons, there are no legal penalties for a person who attempts suicide, but assisting a suicide remains an offence. Parliament recognised that people who have tried to kill themselves need help rather than punishment.

There is therefore no legal right to suicide, and certainly no right to involve others in killing oneself. This is because the right to life is an inalienable right. No one may dispose of an innocent person’s life, and so one cannot, in justice, intentionally deprive oneself of life.

If the law were to allow some individuals to volunteer for euthanasia, this would also threaten the right to life of others, especially the elderly, the gravely ill and the disabled. Legalisation of euthanasia would make a clear statement to society that it was permissible for private citizens (e.g. doctors) to kill because they accepted the view that a patient’s life was no longer worthwhile.

If it is seen as a benefit to kill patients who consent to euthanasia, it is easy to argue that others should not be denied death simply because they cannot ask for it. Courts in Britain and other countries have already judged that some incapacitated patients may be starved to death and this challenges the notion that euthanasia would remain voluntary if allowed by statute law.


Euthanasia versus good medical practice

Opposition to euthanasia does not mean that the society insists on medical treatment at all costs. The alternative to euthanasia is good medical practice, which requires doctors to recognise when it is appropriate not to continue treatment.

Sometimes a distinction is made between active euthanasia (e.g. a lethal injection) and passive euthanasia, which involves withholding or withdrawing treatment. However, it is misleading to describe withholding or discontinuing treatment as euthanasia unless this is done with the intention of killing the patient.
Sometimes a treatment may properly be withdrawn even though the patient has consented to it, for example, when it is futile, merely prolonging the dying process in a terminally ill patient.The doctor’s intention is the critical distinction between euthanasia and good palliative care (treatment to relieve distressing symptoms).

The dosage of painkillers necessary to control a patient’s pain may have the side effect of shortening his life. No moral objection arises as long as the drugs are not given with the intention of hastening the patient’s death, but only in order to control the pain.

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