End of Life Choice Bill first reading – Chris Bishop

Speech from National MP Chris Bishop in the first reading of the End of life Choice Bill on 13 December 2017.


First Reading

CHRIS BISHOP (National—Hutt South): Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Tonight the House has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remove the invidious choice presented to some individuals under the status quo. It’s the choice described by the Supreme Court of Canada in Carter v Canada: “people who are grievously and irremediably ill cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: [he or] she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or [they] can suffer until [they] die from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”—the choice is cruel. We have an opportunity tonight to begin to create a more compassionate society; one that upholds human dignity and protects the right to life.

My first point is that legalising assisted dying is morally the correct thing to do. Legalising end-of-life choice is supported by the values of a civilised and decent society, rather than contradicting them. It upholds human dignity—the ability to end your life at a time and manner of your choosing, rather than in cruel and intolerable conditions. It recognises and affirms human agency and autonomy. Assisted dying places primacy on the individual and their choice to end their life with dignity.

But beyond morality, there is a strong case for supporting this bill based on hard, practical evidence alone. The status quo is manifestly inadequate. After reading the extensive evidence on this subject and talking to people in the community, it is clear that some people experience unbearable suffering at the end of their lives despite the best available palliative care. In the Seales v Attorney-General case, experts on both sides, for both the plaintiff and the defendant, concurred on this conclusion. As Justice Collins said, “Palliative care cannot provide relief from suffering in all cases”, and extensive medical evidence was presented at the trial to support this conclusion. It’s worth noting this is a conclusion that the Palliative Care Council agree with.

It’s also abundantly clear from the evidence that people are already taking their own lives prematurely and that doctors are assisting in this already, except the system is unregulated. Now we have the chance to create a better system: one that is more transparent and has strong safeguards in place around the vulnerable.

My third point is that it is possible to design a system that stops terrible suffering by a few while avoiding harm to others, and that must of course be the goal of public policy and of this bill. Why do I say that? Because other jurisdictions have done exactly this, and I encourage members to go and read the Supreme Court of Canada judgment. What they found was that the risk associated with physician-assisted dying can be limited through a carefully-designed and monitored system of safeguards. The court found this after an extensive and thorough review of the evidence, including cross-examination of leading experts from around the world. The court considered many of the arguments arrayed against this bill and against this issue tonight—that assisted dying leads to abuse, that it can create a slippery slope. Justice Smith, on behalf of the court, rejected this. She instead found that a properly-designed system could, “with a very high degree of certainty”, prevent vulnerable persons from being induced to commit suicide.

I encourage members to go and read the recent judgment of the Supreme Court, because it is an extensive canvassing of all the arguments for and against physician-assisted dying. The court found that the prohibition of assisted dying breaches the right to life, and encouraged—in fact, told—the Canadian legislature to design a solution that was consisted with the right to life. We have that opportunity with this bill now.

Parliament has twice considered voluntary euthanasia in the last 22 years; the last bill, in 2003, failed by just two votes. A lot has changed since then. Scores of countries and jurisdictions have legalised assisted dying. It is time the New Zealand Parliament considered this issue substantively and in a serious and rigorous way. The right place to do that is at the select committee.

Let me end by saying that in a modern and compassionate society, the law should allow for a decent death. That’s what this bill sets out to do, and that’s why I’ll be voting for it at first reading.

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