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The euthanasia debate: where's our voice?

Fri 28 Nov 2003 In: Comment

Australia and New Zealand gay male communities have different attitudes toward voluntary euthanasia and its decriminalisation. In Australia, state and territorial AIDS Councils backed Northern Territory-based euthanasia law reform, until the Andrews Bill overrode local territory euthanasia legislation and cancelled its effect. More recently, Roger Magnusson revealed the existence of an HIV/AIDS 'euthanasia underground' and there have been cases where gay men have assisted the deaths of their PLWA lovers through 'mercy killing.' In New Zealand, the latest incarnation of the Death With Dignity Bill failed by a three vote margin. With few exceptions, the gay male community ignored the debate beforehand. Why hasn't the New Zealand gay male community gotten seriously involved in this country's euthanasia law reform debates? One answer might be that it could seem defeatist when Kaletra has still not been approved for People Living With HIV/AIDS who have developed tolerances for previous regimes of medication. It may seem premature to talk about death with dignity when life with dignity is becoming unobtainable due to a glacially paced approvals procedure. Added to which, protease inhibitors have extended the lives of PLWAs anyway, which has deferred any question of "last rights." It is possible that we may sympathise with Lesley Martin and others in her tragic situation, but relationship and parenting equality, as well as protease inhibitor and combination therapy access are more pressing community issues. Moreover, neither side of the voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide debate has shown any interest in the issue of access to palliative care needs within New Zealand. In Canada and Australia, the situations are different. In the Rodriguez case, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that there was no right to assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada's constitution. In that case, gay New Democratic Party MP Svend Robinson became involved with Sue Rodriguez, the appellant- but she was dying from amotryphic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease- not HIV/AIDS. More seriously, one gay male doctor, Maurice Generoux, performed euthanasia on a clinically depressed PLWA, and had sex with his PLWA patients. However, Marianne Seguin, another euthanasia rights activist, made an important contribution to the debate when she reframed it in terms of "palliative choice." From this perspective, there is a right to palliative care as well as a right to voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide. Unfortunately, New Zealand euthanasia rights organisations have not made any pronouncements which indicate that they have similarly reframed the debate. As for the anti-euthanasia lobby, it is telling that SPUC and Right to Life New Zealand were the leading organisations against the reincarnated Death With Dignity Bill last year. Anti-euthanasia zealots talk about the meaningfulness of palliative care and hospice programmes, but they do not lobby for increased funding for actual palliative care programmes themselves. It is especially disappointing that the Nathaniel Centre, New Zealand's Catholic bioethics centre, has been silent over such practical issues of palliative care access and rights. Intriguingly too, the anti-euthanasia movement was muted eight years after the introduction of the first attempt at euthanasia law reform. There may be a number of reasons for this. One of them is that euthanasia law reform probably won't happen until the medical profession liberalises its opinions about voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide. In the Netherlands and Oregon, that has already happened. In New Zealand, the NZMA believes that palliative care needs come first. Secondly, the New Zealand anti-abortion/anti-euthanasia lobby is suffering from advanced mortality, morbidity and migration. SPUC hasn't published an issue of Pro-Life Times, its four page glossy puff piece, since July 2003. As for Right to Life New Zealand, it seems to be similarly paralysed, and only seems to link to overseas anti-euthanasia websites. Moreover, the anti-euthanasia movement had to call in the US Christian Right when it came to halting voluntary euthanasia legislation in New Zealand. Thirdly, it may simply not want to face it. It is significant that all but two New Zealand First MPs voted for the first reading of the Death With Dignity Bill. Moreover, there is a possibility that New Zealand First may decide to offer a referendum on voluntary euthanasia legislation, given its attitude toward citizens initiated referenda- which the Christian Right also supports. However, they must be aware that it was an Oregonian CIR that led to the final introduction of Oregon's assisted suicide legislation in 1997. Is this ignorance, short-sightedness, or unacknowledged opportunism, given New Zealand First's social conservatism on most other issues? At present, we don't seem to be associated with either side of the euthanasia debate. Should we intervene, and broaden it to include meaningful palliative choice in the context of HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening medical conditions? Or should we prioritise Kaletra access and procedural reform of the regulatory processes that have hampered it until now? Further Reading: Miriam Cosic, The Right to Die? Inside the Euthanasia Debate: Sydney: New Holland: 2002 Roger Magnusson: Angels of Death: Inside the Euthanasia Underground: Melbourne: Melbourne University Press: 2001. Craig Young - 28th November 2003    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Friday, 28th November 2003 - 12:00pm

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