10 Apr 2019

Voluntary euthanasia bill opponents say sponsor's tinkerings desperate

8:59 am on 10 April 2019

Opponents of voluntary euthanasia legislation have dismissed the bill's sponsor David Seymour's latest bid to get more support as a desperate measure that will not work.

David Seymour addresses media following the release of the justice committee's report on the End of Life Choice Bill

David Seymour addresses media following the release of the justice committee's report on the End of Life Choice Bill Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The select committee reported back on the euthanasia legislation yesterday, and could not agree on whether it should become law.

Nearly 39,000 submissions on the bill were received by MPs over 16 months, with 90 percent of the 36,700 written submissions opposing it.

Now, Mr Seymour has said if MPs vote yes at the second reading, he will make significant changes to restrict the bill to those with a terminal illness who have six months to live.

In its current form, the End of Life Choice Bill allows those with an incurable or irremediable, grievous condition, or experiencing unbearable suffering to ask a doctor to help end their life.

But Mr Seymour is now prepared - reluctantly - to remove those clauses.

"I think it's a shame that the bill, if it's restricted, will not give them the choice that they want, but I have listened to what people have said in select committee - there is not enough support in Parliament for it to be for people who don't have a terminal prognosis."

MPs are expected to vote again on the bill on 22 May. It will be a conscience vote so individual MPs can cast their ballot according to their personal views.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she would be voting in favour.

Protestors at the rally against the End of Life Choice Bill.

People from New Zealand's Pacific communities rallied at Parliament against the voluntary euthanasia bill yesterday. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

'It's an irretrievable bill' - opponent

But the move has been rubbished by Peter Thirkell from the anti-euthanasia campaign Care Alliance. He said Mr Seymour was grasping at straws and would not get the votes he needed.

"David Seymour wanting to tinker at the margins, we feel, is a sign of desperation.

"It's an irretrievable bill, it should be canned and we should focus our efforts on life-affirming approaches."

John Fox from the Elevate Christian Disability Trust also would not be swayed by the proposed changes.

A portrait of The Chairperson of the General Practice Council of the Medical Association, Kate Baddock

Kate Baddock Photo: RNZ/Karen Brown

He has spastic hemiplegia, where the muscles on one side of the body are always contracted, and he maintains that the legislation would still devalue the lives of the terminally ill and disabled.

"We already know that disabled people and sick people and terminally ill people commonly question the value of their lives," Dr Fox said.

"What you don't need in the room when somebody is processing industrial amounts of grief and questioning the value of their lives is a doctor with a poison pill."

Medical professions have overwhelmingly opposed the bill, with 93 percent of the 2000 submissions made by them against the legislation.

Medical Association chairperson Kate Baddock said the bill would not be supported in any form, and if it was passed, doctors wanted no involvement in euthanising people.

"We do not condone deliberately shortening or ending another's life - no matter whether you keep that just restricted to those who are terminally ill or to other situations, that principle remains true," Dr Baddock said.

Terminal cancer patient disappointed bill may not cover those who need it

Cancer sufferer Stuart Armstrong makes a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into assisted dying.

Cancer sufferer Stuart Armstrong makes a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into assisted dying. Photo: RNZ / Conan Young

Terminal cancer patient Stuart Armstrong supports the bill, and although he would be covered by the provisions, he did not like the thought that others with long-term illnesses would miss out.

"Because I have terminal cancer and a very limited lifespan ahead of me I definitely want it to go ahead in some way, shape or form, just purely selfishly.

"But I'm really, really disappointed that there are folk that could be covered [by] this bill, but would be given relief, would be given a death with dignity, that now looks like they will not be able to."

He watched a family friend die of a motor neurone disease, which he said was a "pitiful, miserable death".

"In those situations, I think the definition 'irremediable suffering', this is not going to get better, these people have expressed their own individual wish to die on their terms and that's before they whither away. I think it's really, really sad that this is looking like it may not happen for them."

Bill 'a mess' - committee deputy chairperson

National Party MP Maggie Barry is the deputy chairperson of the select committee that considered the bill, and is an opponent of the legislation.

National MP Maggie Barry sat on the justice committee

National MP Maggie Barry Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

She told Morning Report the bill was "a mess, it is unsafe".

She said Mr Seymour had said the legislation was "a perfect thing and needed no changes".

But lawyers, doctors, those in the disability sector and advocates for people with dementia and Alzheimer's told the select committee it did not have sufficient safeguards.

"This bill is not workable in my view ... I have never seen a bill that is as poorly crafted and as poorly thought through as this one."

She said if the bill were passed it would be one of the most liberal in the world, and it did not have enough safeguards for people who were vulnerable and were susceptible into being coerced into taking steps to end their lives.

She said she believed the bill would allow for people suffering from illnesses such as asthma, diabetes, incontinence, gluten intolerance to end their lives.

"It isn't just me, it is the lawyers and the doctors and the others," she said.

"Particularly the lawyers actually, they feel that they would have a field day with this, that the loopholes are so vast."

Bill's sponsor rejects Maggie Barry's criticisms

Mr Seymour told Morning Report just because the committee reported that some submitters believed the bill could lead to asthma, diabetes and incontinence sufferers taking steps to end their lives, that did not mean it was, in fact, the case.

"It doesn't give it the authority of the report, the report's job is to acknowledge all the things people said.

"Maggie Barry may be the deputy chair of the committee but let's not kid ourselves, she is a committed partisan opponent of this bill and any kind of legislation like it," Mr Seymour said.

He said the bill said made clear one would need to have a terminal condition, and have two doctors sign off that you were likely to die in six months, to get assisted dying.

"Now there could well be a person with arthritis but they wouldn't be able to get assisted dying because they have arthritis.

"It is simply untrue to say that this bill would allow a person ... [with asthma] to be eligible for assisted dying, that's simply does not stack up from any reading of the bill whatsoever."

He also denied the bill was in trouble. He said it was always going to be the case that the any major changes to it would be done after the select committee stage.

Mr Seymour said this was because the select committee only had eight MPs while the next "committee of the whole house stage" - assuming it passed its second reading in Parliament - was where all members of the house could vote on amendments to the bill.

He said he signalled as early as December that there would be a debate later in the law-making process about whether a prognosis of terminal illness would be the threshold rather than a "grievous and irremediable that is declining".

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