[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The ecumenical body which advises church members of the “spiritual, ethical and cultural issues connected to biotechnology and related issues” in New Zealand has responded to a government consultation by stressing its opposition to the introduction of “physician-assisted suicide.”
In making its submission, the InterChurch Bioethics Council (ICBC), an ecumenical, cross-cultural body supported by the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches of New Zealand, accepted that its views were not shared by all members of its constituent denominations, but it said that “as a designated committee, we are providing our ‘expert’ opinion following our own discussions, research and reading over the past three years and some limited wider consultation.”
The ICBC criticised the country’s Health Select Committee for considering the “social, legal, medical, cultural, financial, ethical, and philosophical implications” of such a move; saying that they “have negated to include spiritual considerations which are also part of current legislation guidelines.”
In addition, the ICBC challenged the phrase “physician-assisted dying” that had been used in the debate, saying that that the phrase was “inadequate” because it “confuses scenarios where the intention of the physician is actively to cause death with those where the intention is to relieve suffering.
“Where the intention is to cause death this may be either through prescription of drugs which the patient takes (physician-assisted suicide) or where the doctor administers a lethal dose of drugs (active euthanasia).
“Where the intention of the physician is to relieve suffering this may include withholding or withdrawal of treatment and administration of appropriate treatment through which ‘nature’ is allowed to take its course and death is allowed to occur. This is not defined as euthanasia and is currently legal. For the purposes of our submission the term ‘physician-assisted suicide’ will be used.”
In its submission, the ICBC said that “the right to self-determination does not take place in a vacuum – no-one is completely free, we are embedded in family and society involving critical relationships, including a debt to future generations. Our personal freedom is always held alongside the rights of others, and from a Christian perspective, our personal rights have to be considered alongside our responsibilities to others that reflect our love of God as indicated in the command to love both God and neighbour (Mark 12:28-32).
“In the face of suffering, the Christian and humane response is to maximise care/compassion for those in most need. However killing is not a part of the arsenal of care/compassion for the dying.”
They continue: “A change in the law to permit physician-assisted suicide would cross a fundamental legal and ethical boundary, since the respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights laws and ought not to be abandoned.
“While it is not a crime for someone to take his or her own life, as a society we recognise that it is a tragedy and we, rightly, do all that we can to prevent suicide. Any move towards physician-assisted suicide requires us to turn this stance on its head, not merely legitimising suicide, but actively supporting it and sanctioning doctors to participate with individuals taking active steps to end their lives.”
They cite a number of concerns, including the potential pressure that might be placed on vulnerable elderly and disabled people; before concluding that it would not support “the decriminalising or legalising physician-assisted suicide.” Instead, they want people to recognise “that death is a natural part of life, and that many cultures have traditions for managing the process of dying which should be respected and from which we can learn.
“We recommend that skilled palliative care is made freely available (and publicly funded) to all of those who suffer to enable them to die ‘well’. In addition, we commend current efforts to address the needs of vulnerable groups, to prevent elder abuse, and to include people with disabling conditions in making decisions about their own treatment and care. We note that support for carers, including adequate remuneration, needs to be strengthened.”