Bishop Charles Drennan speaking to the Justice Select Committee. Photo: Frank Wafer
Representatives of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC) presented serious reservations over David Seymour’s ‘End of Life Choice’ bill, to the Justice Select Committee on Monday 11 June.
Speaking were Bishop Charles Drennan and Dr Caroline Newson, who works in acute psychiatry medicine; and representing the Bishops’ bioethics agency, the Nathaniel Centre, were director Dr John Kleinsman and researcher
Bishop Charles acknowledged the selfless staff working in rest homes, hospices and hospitals who accompany the dying and their families and whānau daily. He noted the Church’s long involvement in palliative care and referred to the first hospice in New Zealand, founded by the Little Company of Mary, a group of Catholic sisters. The sisters advocated in the early 1970s to set up beds to nurse the dying and established the Mary Potter Hospice.
Bishop Charles argued against the bill’s narrative, based on the premise of individual choice. He said, ‘choice is good but not always good. What is important is to choose what is right or dignified or best’. Bishop Charles’ main argument was that the bill, if passed, would usher in a regressive unnecessary backwards move. He said New Zealand prides itself on being a progressive nation and to be truly progressive is to challenge ageist attitudes and eliminate the sense that being sick or old or dependent equates to being a burden. He stressed assisted suicide of the elderly or sick, like the tragedy of youth suicide, would be a cause of great whakamā or shame for Aotearoa.
Dr Caroline Newson said the bill would contradict the Government’s pledge to better support mental health, making it legal for those with a mental illness to have a doctor assist their suicide. Dr Newson emphasised euthanasia and assisted suicide had no place in healthcare and doctors did not want nor should have imposed upon them the burden of being the ones to end people’s lives when they were trained to provide care and give hope to their patients.
‘This bill places a heavy burden upon the medical profession to aid in the suicide of, or actively kill a person who seeks such an end to their life and is deemed to satisfy the bill’s eligibility criteria,’ she said.
Dr Kleinsman spoke to the bill’s problems, its imprecise terminology, vague and subjective language around eligibility, failure to consider broader social implications and the ethical contradiction of involving doctors in ending the lives of their patients. ‘We should not ask doctors to be life takers as well as life savers,’ he said. He spoke too to the impossibility of ensuring people were not coerced, a point made by various other medical groups during the day, as well as the absence of effective safeguards within the proposed legislation. Citing the growing rates of elder abuse as well as growing social isolation amongst older people along with an increased sense amongst elders that they are a burden, Dr Kleinsman added, ‘There has never been a more dangerous time to implement an assisted death regime in New Zealand.’
Dr Kleinsman warned against the ‘slow creep of eligibility’ and cited international examples where the year-on-year increase of numbers of euthanasia is rising steeply. ‘The practice of euthanasia, is contributing to a new norm around dying in places such as Belgium and the Netherlands whose regimes are very similar to the proposed legislation.’
Presenting on the same day was the NZCBC’s social justice agency Caritas. In their oral submission Julianne Hickey Caritas Director, Mikaele Teofilo Lay Pastoral Leader, Teresa Thorp Caritas Advocacy and Research Manager, questioned the ability to make choices in the presence of power imbalances and lack of accessibility of adequate resources. They said lacking from the bill was provisions to protect the vulnerable as well as proper regulation.
Other organisations presenting included: Not Dead Yet Aotearoa; Care Alliance; Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand; Grace Presbyterian Church of NZ; Palliative Care Nurses; Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine and Hospice New Zealand.
The timetable for the Justice Select Committee’s report on the End of Life Choice bill has been extended after a record number of submissions were received.
The Justice Committee will report back to Parliament at the end of March next year.