Euthanasia: Sides Gear Up For New Legal Battle

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A battle to legalize physician-assisted suicide is looming in New Zealand, pitting ethicists and religious groups against right-to-die activists, who are supported by one of the world's most controversial euthanasia advocates.

A lawmaker's private bill seeks to legalize euthanasia in cases where an applicant, over the age of 18, has obtained two independent medical opinions, undergone professional counseling and gone through a mandatory waiting period.

With parliament preparing to debate the Death with Dignity Bill, a national debate has also begun, with public figures and organizations taking stands on either side of the argument.

Coincidentally, a New Zealand woman is facing trial for attempted murder, after writing a book describing how she helped her terminally-ill mother take her life in 1999.

Lesley Martin says she published the book entitled "To Die Like a Dog" despite knowing the admission could lead to prosecution, because she feels strongly about the need for a law change.

Dr. Philip Nitschke, the controversial euthanasia activist from neighboring Australia, is coming to New Zealand this week, to throw his support behind the legislative effort, and to accompany Martin to her next court appearance, on Apr. 9.

Nitschke's organization, Exit Australia, hopes to raise funds for Martin's legal defense.

The Australian doctor, who holds euthanasia "workshops" across his home country, has designed several devices aimed at facilitating suicide, including modified plastic bags for suffocation, and a carbon monoxide death-by-gassing machine.

He made waves at the U.S. Hemlock Society's annual conference in San Diego last January when he suggested that the option of assisted suicide should not be limited to the terminally-ill.

Nitschke has been nicknamed "Australia's Dr. Death," after the American euthanasia advocate Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian, who was sentenced in 1999 to 10-25 years' imprisonment for his role in the death of a man with Lou Gehrig's disease.

The forthcoming Martin trial and the Death with Dignity Bill have placed the euthanasia topic firmly on the New Zealand public agenda.

The country's Voluntary Euthanasia Society is urging voters to lobby their representatives and lawmakers to support the bill, according to spokesman Jack Jones.

The Catholic Church is spearheading opposition, with the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Nathaniel Centre, a Catholic bioethics body, noting church tradition is strongly against suicide and assisted-suicide.

Pro-life opponents of euthanasia promote palliative care as the ethical alternative to facilitating death for a person who is terminally ill and suffering.

The national body representing hospices - institutions that aim to give patients the best relief and all-round help possible within the constraints of their illness - has come out against legalization of euthanasia.

"We are committed to the hospice philosophy, which seeks to neither hasten nor delay the normal process of dying," Hospice New Zealand said in a statement.

"We are also committed to upholding international and national laws promoting human rights and respect for life."

The Maxim Institute, a public policy body, challenged the two main legs of the pro-euthanasia case - the "compassion" argument and the "right to die" argument.

Both were flawed, it said, in that they start with the belief that human beings have intrinsic value, but then promote a solution that says a life only has value when it has "quality."

Maxim also pointed out that New Zealand society is deeply concerned about the rate of suicides among young people, and spends millions of dollars on programs aimed at reducing the statistics.

What kind of message would the proposed law send to young people, it asked.

Greg Fleming, the institute's managing director, said while those pushing the bill argued that there were sufficient safeguards before someone would be permitted to die under the legislation, "how long do we seriously believe those controls will hold out?"

The country was already struggling to meet the care of health care, he pointed out.

Citing the case of his grandmother, who has had chronic Alzheimer's for five years, Fleming asked: "What happens once society starts embracing the idea that we only live when 'life has quality?'

"How long will it be before it becomes acceptable, even compassionate - not to mention fiscally prudent - for a doctor to see that she 'dies with dignity'?"

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow