Maryan Street recently claimed that ‘Parliament will pass Seymour Bill this year’ (Stuff, Jan 4, 2019). But, her arguments for that claim are based on little more than her wish for change. Contrary to what she states, the ‘clear trend’ overseas is that the vast majority of assisted death bills continue to be thrown out by legislatures not convinced such a law can be safely implemented.
David Seymour’s recent willingness to narrow the eligibility criteria to people with ‘terminal illnesses’, as discussed in a report he wrote just prior to Christmas on his End of Life Choice Bill for the Justice Select Committee considering the bill, flies in the face of his oft-repeated assertions that his bill was robust and perfectly safe and that the claims of opponents amounted to nothing more than ‘scare-mongering’. In reality, his willingness to change shows tacit acceptance that the many concerns of opponents have real substance. However, the changes proposed are ultimately nothing other than shrewd political manoeuvring on Seymour’s part.
Why? Any law founded on the idea that state-sanctioned death is a moral response to suffering while simultaneously and arbitrarily limiting access to certain groups and types of suffering is inherently discriminatory. It will, and should, be challenged because it is neither ethically nor legally defensible. This is exactly what has happened overseas. In the Netherlands, where the political debates for assisted death were also initially framed around terminal illness for competent adults, euthanasia now includes children, persons with dementia and persons with mental illness. It is precisely what happened in Canada where it took only 10 days after the passage of the C-14 bill for it to be challenged in court by a 25-year-old woman with a neurodegenerative disease. The Canadian government is now, two years on, also considering euthanasia for children, as well as people with mental illness, including dementia.
To amend the laws for some is, ultimately, to open the door for all and Street’s expressed unhappiness with Seymour’s suggested amendments leaves us all in no doubt that her organisation would aggressively pursue this. This alone should give New Zealander’s pause to think more deeply.
The debate about assisted death is properly defined as being about ‘choice’. Our Members of Parliament are the ones charged with ultimately deciding (and they shamefully abdicate this responsibility in the event that they refer it to a referendum). And the question MPs must ask is the same question that applies to any matter of public policy: ‘Will giving this choice to the small group who want it impact negatively on the freedoms and choices of others and, more particularly, on the fundamental human right not to be unnecessarily deprived of life?’
In answering this question, we need to take account of the societal context in which we find ourselves:
- year on year rising rates of elder abuse that belie a robust law and the consistent efforts of health and social service providers;
- rising rates of loneliness amongst our elders, something known to contribute to poorer health outcomes, mentally and physically;
- a mental health system in crisis; some of the worst suicide rates in the world;
- growing ableism which equates dependence with a loss of dignity – ‘better dead than disabled’;
- a growing and disturbing sense amongst the elderly and disabled that one must not be a burden on others, physically, financially or emotionally;
- increasing pressures on our health system that are experienced disproportionately by those who are more socio-economically disadvantaged.
In this context, many people in the groups outlined above will feel co-erced to choose euthanasia.
There has never been a more dangerous time to usher in state-sanctioned assisted death. As one MP recently stated: ‘It may start with compassion but it will end with convenience.’
Dr John Kleinsman is the Director for The Nathaniel Centre, the New Zealand Catholic bioethics centre.