End of Life Choice Bill First Reading – David Seymour

David Seymour introduced his End of Life Choice Bill to the New Zealand Parliament on 13 December 2017.


First Reading

DAVID SEYMOUR (Leader—ACT): I move, That the End of Life Choice Bill be now read a first time. I nominate the Justice Committee to consider the bill. At the appropriate time I intend to move that the bill be reported to the House by the date that is nine months from the date the bill receives its first reading.

I have been approached by New Zealand First members regarding a referendum to give this bill its Royal assent if it passes through all stages. I want to put on record that I’ve pledged support for a suitable amendment. Whether there is such a referendum will depend on whether the committee of the Whole House joins me in supporting such an amendment.

My fellow members it is not pleasant to talk about painful death but when our country’s laws do not work it is incumbent upon us to have that discussion. Our laws surrounding end of life choice currently do not work and we must improve them. Let me explain why that is using the people in this room. There are 120 of us here and we can reasonably hope that the vast majority of us will live long lives and die easy, painless deaths. Sadly, some of us will get ill. Our illnesses may well turn out to be terminal but we will be helped by palliative care to die comfortably none the less. That leaves maybe half a dozen of us here who will die badly. Those half a dozen represent the 3 percent or the 4 percent who might seek an assisted death under this bill based on experience in countries where such legislation is in place and based on the choices that New Zealanders currently make. Any one of us in this Parliament could find ourselves facing that situation.

I’m afraid to say that the options we would face in that situation are cruel. A person at the end of their life, suffering badly and unable to be helped by palliative care can commit amateur violent suicide. We know from extensive studies of the coronial records of this country that five percent to eight percent of New Zealand’s suicides were by people who were dying and wanted to take control of the end of their life. They didn’t want to die. They weren’t depressed. They weren’t suicidal but they knew what was coming and they wanted control. One such person was Martin Haines. He was a staff member here in Parliament. He had Huntington’s disease and he killed himself. The only mercy was that he botched it and lived on for several days because that way he got to say goodbye to loved ones that he was not allowed even to tell what he was going to do under our current laws. The tragedy is that he did it many years before he would’ve liked to because he knew his capability was declining and our current laws require him not to be assisted.

But there’s a second option that is not only legal but enshrined in our New Zealand Bill of Rights Act here in New Zealand, the right to refuse treatment including food and water. Remember there are no safeguards when you make that choice. There is no accountability mechanism but it happens legally, in fact it is protected under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act to New Zealanders every single day.

The third option is involuntary euthanasia and surveys of the doctors in New Zealand by Auckland University medical school tell us that 4½ percent of New Zealanders who die, die when they are informally euthanized, given pain medication with the express intent of ending their life.

A final option is none of the above, you just suffer until the bitter end, writhing in a body that lives on but gives no comfort. I know people in this room have watched it happen and said “Never again.” That colleagues, is the moral case for this bill. It is wrong that in 2017 under the laws made by this House we tolerate a status quo where people suffer needlessly. We allow under our laws violent amateur suicide, barbaric suffering, and informal euthanasia, all perfectly legal, but the choice that we don’t allow is the person in question who is suffering at the end of their life to make a choice, make their choice, safeguarded under the rule of law. The current situation is absurdity.

But there’s also, other than a moral case, a legal case. Because I acknowledge Matt Vickers is here tonight, and when his late wife Lecretia Seales sued the Crown in Seales v Attorney-General the judge ruled “I would be trespassing on the role of Parliament and departing from the constitutional of judges in New Zealand if I were to issue the law declaration sought by Ms Seales.” In other words, colleagues, the judge said that if it is to be then we in Parliament must act. We sit in the highest court in this country and we cannot shirk our duty.

The final reason that you might support this bill is democratic. We’re here to serve New Zealanders, and the overwhelming majority of them, when asked time and again by reputable polling companies, say that they want choice in assisted dying. They want assisted dying to be legalised. Public support for legalised assisted dying is 75 percent. Let me put that in perspective, never in the history of this country have more than 40 percent of New Zealanders watched an All Blacks game, 75 percent is one of the most unanimous agreements that New Zealanders have.

I know some members are worried about opinion in their electorates and amongst those people that they represent. I understand some of them have been receiving a lot of emails, some of them even from Australia today, but can I suggest it would be much more difficult to tell the people you represent that you denied a discussion at select committee when it’s 75 percent of them than it will be to tell the minority that you think this country deserves a proper debate on an actual bill.

Those are the moral, legal, and democratic reasons why the status quo as we have it now is not acceptable. I’m sure members will have another question, if we don’t like the status quo is it possible to improve it? More specifically, is it possible to design a law that gives choice to those who want it while safeguarding those who want nothing to do with this law whatsoever? That is the critical question. If it is possible then there can be no objection to this bill that a member of Parliament wishing to impose their own social morays upon others. So, is such a law possible? Perhaps the best authority is the Supreme Court of Canada. Supreme Court justices are conservative types and they don’t often agree with each other unanimously. With that in mind here is what the court unanimously found in Carter vs Canada after an exhaustive trial considering evidence from around the world where assisted dying laws had been in place.

They said, “We agree that the risks associated with physician assisted death can be limited to carefully designed and monitored systems of safeguards.” That is the conclusion of one of the greatest courts in the world, having looked at all the evidence. Shortly after that ruling, the Canadian Parliament legalised assisted dying.

Closer to home, our own Attorney-General assessed whether this specific bill is consistent with the Bill of Rights Act, and he said, “There are multiple safeguards built into the process, including … stringent criteria for eligibility … the requirement for an independent second opinion and referral to specialist (if necessary), and the ability for the person to change their mind at any time.”

I would like to quote at much greater length from those two documents, but let me assure you that the conclusions I just read are the conclusions they reached after very fulsome consideration. I encourage any members who have not already done so to read the bill. They’ll see why the Supreme Court of Canada thought that such a bill was possible, and why this bill is one that gives people protection under the law and choice only if they want it.

This bill requires that a person be 18 or over, be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, and have either a terminal illness or a prognosis of less than 6 months or a grievous and irremediable condition. They must be “in an advance state of irreversible decline in capability;”. This wording is critical when it comes to concerns that some people have about disability. You have to be “in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability;”. It is not about your level of capability; it is about being in decline.

You have to be of sound mind—that is, you have to be able to understand the nature of the decision you’re making. Again, this wording is important. People with depression, for instance, by definition have a distorted view of the value of life and therefore would not qualify.

All of this has to be signed off by two doctors who must examine the patient. The doctor must seek to speak with the family members and others involved in the patient’s care to ensure that they can satisfy themselves there is no coercion at play. The second doctor is selected randomly, independently from the first, and if either doubts the patient’s mental state, they must refer the patient to a psychiatrist. Each case is then countersigned by a registrar at the Ministry of Health. The same registrar collects statistics and reports to this House.

There are those in this Parliament who say this is the worst bill that they’ve ever encountered. But I’ve challenged them privately, and they know they couldn’t name a better one. This bill’s been in the public domain since September 2015, and no critic has laid a glove on any aspect of it.

Colleagues, our fellow New Zealanders are suffering. I’m afraid to say some people in this House will suffer and probably want the choices afforded by this bill. We don’t know who it will be, but in a way it doesn’t matter. Their suffering is needless and it hurts all humanity if we allow it when we have a choice. Tonight, colleagues, you have a choice. The question is whether—[Time expired]