One of the most contentious pieces of legislation ever seen in New Zealand Parliament has now been passed through its third reading and will go to referendum in the 2020 election. Inspired by the judicial action taken by terminally ill lawyer Lecretia Seales, David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill was introduced to the House in 2017 and proposes the choice of assisted dying or euthanasia to the terminally ill. It is not there to encourage dying, but to give those who are suffering and facing inevitable death a choice, to die peacefully and with dignity.
To be eligible for assisted dying, a person must meet all the criteria:
– Be aged 18 or over
– Be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand
– Suffer from terminal illness that is likely to end their life in 6 months
– Have significant and ongoing decline in physical capability
– Experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased
– Be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying
That person cannot be eligible if the reason is that they are suffering from a mental illness, mental disorder, have a disability of any kind or be of advanced age.
This bill has triggered a very strong and highly emotional response since its introduction nearly three years ago. Parliament had voted on this bill as a conscience issue, meaning their vote did not have to align with their party values, but with their personal ones. This welcomed a range of responses that strongly supported and strongly opposed this bill, finally reaching 69 votes to 51 in favor of the bill. This sent the bill to referendum, where the public will decide on its fate this upcoming election.
In a 2018 debate, ex-Prime Minister Bill English had called the proposed legislation, “parliamentary-sanctioned murder”. During the third reading of the bill, National MP Nick Smith had expressed his worry that this Bill allowed for eligible people to request for euthanasia without consulting with their family and loved ones. However in the Bill it does state that a doctor must suggest for the person to talk with their loved ones, but they do not have to do so. Many people have opposed this bill on cultural and religious basis, for the fear that it is taking one’s life away too soon and that it is inhumane for healthcare staff to have to carry this out. There was also concerns that people could be pressured by their families to make the decision, or that privatised medical practitioners would offer this service for financial gain. Essentially, the biggest worry was that this procedure would be easily abused. Under clause 8(2)(h) of the Act, the doctor must ensure that the person wanting euthanasia was under no pressure from any other person, they would do this through talking with the family members. However, many submissions claimed this was too low a threshold, and some patients would not want their family members to be consulted. New Zealand’s criteria around the process is much stricter than elsewhere around the world. The Swiss Law, one of the world’s most liberal allows any person, irrespective of age, to be euthanized so long as they are capable of understanding what they are choosing to do. In comparison, New Zealand’s proposed legislation is stringent and only available to those who would likely die within six months following their request for assisted death and are terminally ill. This bill does not extend to mental disorders, mental illnesses, or disability. Thus, it is fair to question claims such as National Party’s Harete Hipango’s overstatement that this is simply “a kill bill”.
One major argument against euthanasia was the way it would impact Māori, as they have disproportionately bad health outcomes. This was put under the spotlight by National MP and GP Shane Reti and supported by Labour MP Adrian Rurawhe. However, after discussing the issue with three high profile Maori leaders, Labor MP Willie Jackson rejected this view saying these Maori leaders had helped him realize that “Tikanga evolves, Tikanga changes and there is no one Tikanga”.
Being put to the public with the success of its third reading, this bill did not go without its praise and supporters. The third reading of the bill was an emotional debate, especially since it was a conscience issue. National MP Chris Bishop states, “I do not accept the argument that has been put by some- that painful death is just something we should blindly accept, that it is ‘Gods Will’”. He also went on to cite that between 3 and 8 per cent of suicide in the 20th century was committed by people who were “rational, competent, and suffering a terminal illness”. This shows how the legalization of assisted dying could be a way that the terminally ill are able to pass away without pain, with the support of their loved ones, rid from the taboo nature of suicide and with dignity. The stringent laws on euthanasia in New Zealand would make this process only available to those who were in immense pain, with no way out of their suffering than through a painful and slow death. It aims to alleviate the suffering, using the rule of law to help those who are rendered helpless by their own bodies.