One week out from a general election, our politicians just can’t seem to stay away from life and death issues.
Last week, it was abortion. This week, National MP Simon O’Connor got himself into hot water over the issue of euthanasia. He criticised the Labour leader for supporting both a zero suicide rate and euthanasia laws.
His boss, Bill English, texted him to tell him he was wrong to link the two, which makes you wonder whether English actually read the report on euthanasia that O’Connor, along with politicians of other stripes, produced recently.
On page 43 the report deals explicitly with the arguments differentiating suicide from euthanasia. The section points out that one of the world’s most important health organisations recognises that it is actually very difficult to do so.
“The World Health Organization acknowledges significant definitional difficulties in its most recent publication on the issue”, we read. “In its 2014 report, “Preventing Suicide: A global imperative”, it defines suicide as the act of deliberately killing oneself.”
That definition describes precisely what New Zealand euthanasia laws will aid people to do.
Our Kiwi report then points out that some try to differentiate between rational and irrational suicide, but again, the experts are not on board. Here’s what youth counsellors and suicide prevention organisations say:
“Suicide is always undertaken in response to some form of suffering, whether that is physical, emotional, or mental. All forms are deliberate and intentional.”
What that means is that suicide, euthanasia and assisted suicide all involve deliberately choosing death as a response to suffering.
And it isn’t just experts pointing out that the difference is difficult to pinpoint. Check out the response from our politicians to O’Connor’s comparison: According to Prime Minister Bill English, “we don’t do that”. According to Labour leader Jacinda Ardern “it’s just wrong”. Even the author of the End of Life Choice bill himself simple said “the two issues could not be further apart”.
In fact ACT’s David Seymour dismissed O’Connor’s claim using the example of suicidal young people, a group we are rightly fighting desperately to save in New Zealand. But in Belgium where euthanasia is legal, a suicidal young woman won the right to euthanasia. Why? Because the courts agree that death is a reasonable and good response to suffering – physical or mental.
The issues are not quite so far apart as Seymour claims.
That is exactly why definitions matter. If international and local experts can’t clearly differentiate euthanasia and suicide, if our politicians are unwilling to enlighten us, then what hope have the rest of us got when we are trying to explain the difference to those suffering mental anguish around us?
The horror of suicide is an all-to-frequent reality in this country, so the question is critical. Besides that, family and friends left in mourning by a suicide, or those supporting the suicidal, have a right to know euthanasia laws will not mix our messages on the value of living through suffering.
If our fight against suicide is to be effective we simply must be able to explain why some physical suffering justifies death while the mental torture that is severe depression, or bipolar, or schizophrenia, does not. Don’t all involve horrendous, prolonged mental or physical pain? Don’t all involve loss of dignity at certain points? Don’t all involve loss of quality of life? Don’t all involve a shortened life expectancy?
When compassion means allowing some to choose death to relieve suffering, how can it also mean convincing others to live through it?
If we cannot answer these questions, then surely, we have to face the fact that what we are fighting with one hand, we are feeding with the other.
This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz