We Wouldn’t Treat Animals Like This

My Poppa (my grandfather) was raised in the harsh reality of farming in Depression-era New Zealand. His father (my great grandfather) was thrown into debt at the start of the Depression. He had shipped his butter to England, but the butter was now worthless and the shipping company still wanted payment for transporting it.

In those days, vets were a luxury so sick or maimed animals were quickly “put out of their misery”. As a boy, my Poppa quickly learned that this was the humane option, even though his family often couldn’t even afford bullets to do the deed.

I’ve previously talked about my grandmother’s death in the context of end-of-life care and the tendency of our health system to over treat and under care. However, in the context of The End of Life Choice Bill, I would like to talk about Poppa’s experience.

My Poppa was strong: a Te Kuiti dairy and sheep farmer, who trained dogs and horses. One day, aged 67, he took me (then a 1st XV rugby player at Avondale College) out to round up sheep. He wanted to wrangle a couple of specific ones into a pen for some treatment. The sheep in question bounced me off countless times, while he leaned over the fence and chuckled. When he finally got bored, he strode into the pen and picked up a sheep with one hand.

Twenty years later, Poppa finally met his match: brain cancer. He fought it for a while. Though the doctors said it was inoperable, he took the medication that made him twitch and spasm to buy more time. But soon he grew tired of the side effects and came off it.

This is a fairly typical story for end-of-life treatment, which is part of a much larger conversation around end-of-life treatment and care. David Seymour’s End of Life Bill is just a tiny part of a much greater issue.

In short, our elderly are often offered only one option: treatment. Sometimes they aren’t told about the downsides, and rarely are they offered other options that might be better for all concerned, like spending some money on simply caring for them. Overseas studies suggest that when patients are informed of the downsides of treatment and options such as enhanced care are available, around a third will choose the latter. Given that all medical treatment has a 100% failure rate eventually, this approach seems to make sense.

My Poppa eventually accepted his fate and, as he deteriorated, he was moved to the Te Kuiti hospice. One night, I came up from Wellington to visit and held his hand as the ward grew dark and silent around us. He couldn’t remember anything recent, so I asked him to tell me stories of his youth instead.

During this time, the importance of family really hit home for me. Poppa had six children, most of whom had two or three kids, so he had no lack of support and was surrounded by friends and family in his final weeks. Not everyone is so lucky.

In the end, Poppa couldn’t tolerate the pain any longer and refused any further assistance. He died the next day. He ultimately won the fight against cancer by denying himself food or water.

Would Poppa have taken the option of assisted dying? I’ve talked to my family about this and we don’t know if it is what he would have chosen. All we know is that he wanted to die at his home on the farm. But it bugs us that he didn’t even have the choice.

The fact is that Poppa was lucky. At present, if someone wants to go, all they can do is nil by mouth, or attempt to overdose on painkillers (or a mix of the two). Nil by mouth can be a prolonged and painful death and drag on for up to two weeks. As my Poppa would have said, we wouldn’t treat animals like this.

Allowing assisted dying requires careful safeguards and processes to be in place. It is right to debate this issue and make sure we get it right - I will talk more about the specifics of The End of Life Choice Bill next week. But fundamentally, like most things in our society once the right safeguards and regulations are in place, shouldn’t it be the individual’s choice? My starting point for this sort of debate is that there has to be a pretty good reason to take individual choice off someone. Imposing other people’s religious beliefs doesn’t make that grade.