New Zealand Euthanasia Advocate on Trial for Killing Her Mother

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 19, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

New Zealand Euthanasia Advocate on Trial for Killing Her Mother

by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
March 19, 2004

Wellington, New Zealand ( — A chilling euthanasia case in New Zealand has renewed the worldwide controversy over killing patients before their time.

Euthanasia advocate Lesley Martin is being tried in connection with the 1999 death of her mother, Joy Martin. Lesley Martin, a 40-year-old registered nurse, denies that she tried to murder her mother on two separate occasions.

Prosecutors say the nurse first tried to kill her mother by administering a high level of morphine, then attempted homicide a second time the next night by smothering her mother with a pillow.

Her mother ultimately died of respiratory arrest caused by either morphine or bronchopneumonia.

But criminal charges were not issued until Lesley Martin released stunning revelations about her dealings with her mother in her 2002 book, To Die Like a Dog.

The case has sparked new interest in the debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Brian Johnston, author of Death as a Salesman: What’s Wrong With Assisted Suicide, said, "I’ve been at numerous deathbeds and I know the emotions that surround suffering and death. I also know that there are better answers than killing these vulnerable patients."

Joy Martin was diagnosed with cancer in late 1998 and was considered terminally ill.

However, pro-life advocates note that, just because a patient is in pain, that does not mean he or she should be killed.

"The resources to deal with pain are available, physicians need to use the pain management available to them, and those resources don’t require killing the patient in order to be effective," Johnston said.

"More importantly, studies have consistently shown the desire for suicide to be a cry for emotional help," Johnston, a former California Commissioner on Aging, said. "When the underlying physical and especially the emotional needs are met, the desire for suicide dissipates."

Australian euthanasia campaigner, Phillip Nitschke, is now leading the charge to promote so-called "mercy killing." While euthanasia advocates such as Nitschke receive a great deal of press attention, their campaign to legalize killing goes against legal tradition.

"People have been facing the difficult tragedy of illness and death for centuries and there are very good reasons that intentionally killing the patient has been condemned," Johnston added.

The reasons, Johnston said, are obvious.

"The potential for abuse is vast – heirs speeding access to their legacy; physicians covering up medical mistakes or malpractice; even subtle messages from family and caretakers can create an atmosphere where killing the patient will seem to get everybody else ‘off the hook.’ These things can easily be hidden, and when legalized, will be impossible to detect," Johnston said.

Johnston has observed the process of natural death first-hand as a hospice volunteer. He has also had a chance to see the devastation caused by the mistreatment of senior citizens as a member of California’s Elder Abuse Task Force.

"Compassion literally means to ‘suffer along side,’ to help share another’s burdens. But euthanasia isn’t about compassion. It’s the opposite of compassion," Johnston said.

"True compassion, such as that found in a properly run hospice, requires something of society and something of us as individuals, providing physical and spiritual comfort and care for people in need.

"Euthanasia, even ‘voluntary euthanasia,’ is attractive to some because it eliminates problems through eliminating people, not actually sharing their burdens and meeting their real needs," Johnston added.