We represent the NZ Health Professionals Alliance, an organisation formed in 2009 to protect the right to freedom of conscience for those who practice health care.
We believe that the End of Life Choice Bill is dangerous.
This Bill is based on the premise that it is legitimate for one group of New Zealanders to put another group of New Zealanders to death. The End of Life Choice Bill will give this perilous power to doctors. Yet we doctors, who are at the coal-face of healthcare delivery, do not want this law. We know that to grant us such power is to be mistaken.
The message will be given to the country that a sensible response to suffering is to put a patient to death – or to help them to kill themselves. If the bright line of total prohibition against taking another’s life is removed, unintended consequences will follow. Assisted suicide, called euphemistically in this Bill ‘assisted dying’ should never become an authentic treatment option.
The End of Life Choice Bill will prevent us from giving patients care in accordance with the Medical Council of New Zealand’s Code of Practice; and the freedom to follow our conscience will be compromised. In the proposed regime outlined in the EOLC Bill, doctors will be obliged to facilitate a patient’s assisted death if the patient expressly states a wish to die and if a few criteria are met.
If, however, a doctor has a conscientious objection to euthanasing his or her patient or otherwise assisting in the patient’s suicide, the doctor, under threat of prosecution, must refer the patient to the Support & Consultation End of Life New Zealand Group. We know that the SCENZ group will facilitate the patient’s death as its primary purpose is to support assisted suicide.
Assisted suicide will be legal if the patient is over 18, has a terminal disease, or a serious, chronic condition which could include mental illness, and, if the patient has unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable. If a patient ticks these boxes and requests assisted suicide, the patient’s doctor has a mandatory duty to facilitate that person’s death. It is a bad bill that cannot be fixed. Vulnerable, sick, poor, disabled, less articulate, frail, minority group members – they will be more vulnerable under this Bill. No review process can ever be acceptable, as doctors cannot prove that coercion does not exist.
This Bill is so prescriptive that it overrides the discretion of a doctor to use clinical judgement to act in a patient’s best interests.
Recently, by way of illustration, one of my patients, whom I’ll call Jane, told me she no longer wished to live because she was unable to tolerate her episodes of excruciating abdominal pain along with her severe rheumatoid arthritis and lung disease. Jane said she’d rather be dead than remain so miserable. In an “End-of-Life-Choice-World” I would have been obliged to follow a series of mandatory steps with the sole aim to facilitate Jane’s death. The only “stop point” would be if she changed her mind and decided not to proceed.
If I told Jane that I believed she was better off not being dead yet and if I urged her to reconsider other treatment options, I could have been charged with thwarting her request for assisted suicide – especially, if I also refused to refer her to the SCENZ Group. If prosecuted and convicted, I would have been potentially liable for up to 3 months in prison and/or a maximum fine of $10,000! No appeal to freedom of conscience would apply. My patient for whom I had cared for nearly 20 years would have been abandoned.
Fortunately, in this present era, I recommended to Jane that we seek another surgical opinion. She was diagnosed eventually with a bowel abscess; it was removed and Jane is now completely pain free. Jane has admitted that since that dark depressing day she’s now glad she didn’t die on her request.
Doctors who work with many health professionals in palliative, and end of life care, can manage successfully the pain associated with terminal conditions. If additional funding was provided, these skilled health professionals are willing to train more colleagues in the provision of expert end of life care.
If assisted suicide is legalised it will break forever the bond of trust that underpins every doctor-patient relationship. Members of Parliament have a pending conscience vote on the End of Life Choice Bill. The New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance asks the Justice Select Committee to recommend to Parliament that it rejects the EOLC Bill at its second reading.
Dr Catherine Hallagan is a Wellington GP and Chair of the New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance that advocates for freedom of conscience in health care for doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
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