The End of Life Choice Bill is a bill before the New Zealand Parliament that seeks to give people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition the option of requesting assisted dying. The first reading of the bill was in December 2017, after the bill entered the ballot in 2015. The select committee received 38,000 submissions over 16 months. The second reading took place on 26 June 2019. Dr John Kleinsman comments on the second reading of the bill.
On Wednesday 26 June 2019 the End of Life Choice Bill passed its Second Reading in Parliament by a margin of 20 votes (70 to 50). This represents a significant gain by those campaigning against assisted death – the margin at the first reading was 32 votes (76 to 44).
The process now is that the bill will be discussed by the Committee of the whole House, which means it is read and debated, clause by clause, by all MPs. This is likely to take some months, firstly because Parliament is about to go into a three-week recess; and secondly because a members’ bill can only be debated on members’ days, which occur every second Wednesday of sitting weeks. The next members’ day will be 31 July.
It is far from certain the bill will ultimately pass, something acknowledged by the bill’s sponsor, David Seymour. A number of MPs who ultimately voted ‘yes’ at the second reading have stated they recognise serious problems with the bill as it currently is but want to look more closely at whether ‘changes’ can be made to the bill to make it safer. Media are reporting there are already more than 100 changes (SOPs) planned by MPs.
Some of the unresolved problems are:
- detecting coercion;
- safeguarding vulnerable people, especially the elderly and disabled, from coercion;
- the impact on suicide prevention programmes;
- inevitable broadening of scope as has happened overseas;
- difficulties detecting depression and other mental-health issues that impact on free choice;
- freedom of conscience for the medical profession; and
- cultural implications for Māori and Pasifika whose bad health statistics make it irresponsible to create a state-sanctioned avenue to death in the current context of healthcare rationing.
When it comes to the topic of euthanasia and assisted suicide, we are all motivated by different experiences and arguments. For me, reflecting on the very recent death of my Dad, it is a renewed awareness of just how incredibly vulnerable he was in the last few weeks and how, under a euthanasia regime, elderly people, particularly those who are socially isolated or who feel a burden, will feel significant pressure to ‘do the right thing’.
This is all the more worrying in light of the fact that overseas statistics from states such as Oregon, USA, (where assisted suicide is available) show that people’s prime reasons for choosing are ‘social’ and ‘existential’, including loss of autonomy and the fear of being a burden. Pain, or fear of pain, ranks as one of the lowest motivators.
As the Care Alliance recently noted: ‘Public safety and protection of the vulnerable rather than personal choice must be the paramount consideration in this Bill…Parliament has a duty to ensure that the degree of safety built into legislation matches the gravity of the risk. The gravity of the risk in the euthanasia bill is wrongful death. One single wrongful death is one too many.’
Dr John Kleinsman is Director of The NZ Catholic Bioethics Centre.
Published in WelCom July 2019