Health select committee agrees to euthanasia inquiry

In response to a petition presented to Parliament by the Voluntary Euthanasia  the Health Select Committee has agreed to investigate matters raised by the petition.

NZ Herald reports: Parliament to hold euthanasia inquiry following Lecretia Seales’ death

An inquiry into voluntary euthanasia is to be carried out by Parliament – a process supporters hope will be an important step towards a law change.

Today’s announcement comes after a petition from the Voluntary Euthanasia Society was presented to Parliament by supporters including Matt Vickers, the husband of the late Lecretia Seales.

The petition, signed by former Labour MP Maryan Street and 8,974 others, asked that Parliament’s health and select committee “investigate fully public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit medically-assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable”.

It will set-up an inquiry to “fully investigate the matters raised by the petition”, health committee chair Simon O’Connor said.

The terms of reference will be drafted over the next few weeks, which will form the outline of that investigation.

“This is an important subject and the committee needs to think carefully about the best way to examine it,” Mr O’Connor said.

“I would like to see a thorough investigation that covers as many aspects of this topic as possible in a responsible and robust manner.”

It’s impossible to know where this may lead, if anywhere, but i think it’s time Parliament properly and comprehensively looked at the pros and cons of voluntary euthanasia, the right to choose how we die etc.

David Seymour on ‘end of life choice’

It was announced yesterday that the Health Select Committee will carry out an inquiry into voluntary euthanasia – see Select committee to consider euthanasia – after a petition was presented to the committee.

ACT MP David Seymour was one of a number of MPs who were present when the petition arrived at Parliament. He is drafting a Member’s Bill to try and initiate debate on euthanasia. He has also just posted his thoughts on this difficult topic.

Free Thoughts – End of life choice

The contentious issue of voluntary euthanasia is one I have been considering for some time, and I want to explain here why I am preparing a private member’s (End of Life Choice) Bill to lodge for ballot in Parliament.

The primary motivation for this Bill is compassion.

Many of my constituents have urged me to proceed with a Bill, particularly in light of the withdrawal last year of a similar Bill sponsored by Iain Lees-Galloway, originally introduced by former MP Maryan Street. Two previous Bills on this issue have in the past failed to gain Parliamentary support, but the clear international trend since the 1990s is towards the legalisation of medically assisted end of life choice.

The motivation for this Bill is the very real anguish faced by people with terminal illness, as they anticipate the prospect of intolerable suffering, and the indignity of the final few days and weeks of their lives. While pain can be ameliorated somewhat, the suffering and indignity of that final period of life remains a profound concern to many people.

The intention of the Bill is to allow people with a “grievous and irremediable medical condition” to obtain medical aid to die if they should so choose.

I appreciate that within our community there is a wide range of religious and philosophical views which influence attitudes to this issue. What is unthinkable for some, is considered by others the most compassionate way to address the inevitability of end of life, and the realities of terminal illness.

The Bill I intend to lodge will offer choice that is currently prohibited, for those in our community who are grievously and irremediably ill and who wish to have the option, as they near life’s end, to choose the manner and timing of their final days.

The protections designed to avoid potential abuse are crucial, and would need to be fully examined before any final Bill was to return to the House. A Select Committee process considering specific proposals will enable all these matters to be considered in detail and in public, will provide an opportunity for the full range of views in our community to be heard, and will allow us to examine the international experience.

There are several key considerations behind my intention to lodge a private members Bill.

In my view it is politically, morally, legally and, in terms of public policy, the right thing to do.

I will consider each of these in turn.

Legally this is the right thing to do.

As noted in the recent judgement on the Lecretia Seales case, the issue of end of life choice is a matter for Parliament to determine.

Likewise, earlier this year the Canadian Supreme Court determined unanimously that “The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes on the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

But the Court suspended its judgement for 12 months, giving the Canadian Parliament a year to draft new legislation to reflect that judgement.

This reflected a view that it is a matter for Parliament to decide, not the Courts. Legislation to give effect to assisted dying will involve very many detailed ethical, legal and practical considerations.

The scrutiny of a select committee process, examining a concrete proposal, is the best and most thorough way of considering this issue.

In terms of appropriate legal process, introducing a Bill to Parliament is the right thing to do.

Morally this is the right thing to do.

The difficulty with assisted dying is that we are attempting to balance competing values, each of great importance.

The first is the sanctity of life and the need to protect the vulnerable. The second is the autonomy and dignity of a competent adult who seeks to end their life as a response to a grievous and irremediable medical condition.

The difficulty is that an absolute prohibition on assistance in dying effectively creates a “duty to live” rather than a “right to life”.

An absolute prohibition on assisted dying also calls into question the existing legality of any consent to the withdrawal or refusal of lifesaving or life-sustaining treatment. Yet already there is a degree of societal consensus that the administration of palliative sedation and the withholding or withdrawal of lifesaving or life-sustaining medical treatment, which can have the effect of hastening death, are ethically acceptable.

Protracted dying was once rare; death typically came swiftly. But medicine has advanced, and now a protracted death is common.

By acknowledging this reality, the argument can be advanced that it is also ethical for voluntary adults who are competent, informed, grievously and irremediably ill, and where the assistance is clearly consistent with the patient’s wishes and best interests, and in order to relieve suffering, for them to have the option of physician assisted end of life.

In short, an absolute ban on assisting another person to end their own life can amount to condemning a person to a life of severe and intolerable suffering.

It was for that reason the Canadian Courts concluded that the ban on assisted dying was too broad – by justifiably attempting to protect the vulnerable, it denied the rights of some individuals in a way that bore no relation to the object of the law.

As the Court said, “A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”

That is why the international trend since the 1990s has been for Parliaments to recognise that, in certain well defined circumstances, an individual’s choice about the end of their life is entitled to respect.

The international evidence was closely examined in the Canadian courts. There it was stated that an absolute prohibition on assisted dying would have been necessary if:

  • The evidence showed that physicians were unable to reliably assess competence, voluntariness, and non-ambivalence in patients;
  • That physicians fail to understand or apply the informed consent requirement for medical treatment;
  • Or if the evidence from permissive jurisdictions showed abuse of patients, carelessness, callousness, or a slippery slope leading to the casual termination of life.

But after an exhaustive examination of the evidence these possibilities were rejected. The judgement found that properly designed and administered safeguards were capable of protecting vulnerable people from abuse and error, that the elderly or people with disabilities are not at a heightened risk, and that there was no evidence of a slippery slope.

Before any changes to New Zealand law are contemplated, these issues should be considered afresh by our Parliament.

Morally, reconsidering the law on end of life choice is the right thing to do.

Politically this is the right thing to do.

My job as a Parliamentarian is to represent the voters, and that involves reflecting the will of the public, insofar as that “will” makes sense and is not inconsistent with my fundamental beliefs.

On this issue, for some MPs, there will inevitably be a clash with some profoundly important religious or philosophical beliefs.

That said, the public clearly wish this issue to be debated, so that regardless of one’s personal view on the matter, this is an issue which deserves to be placed before the House – as I will seek to do with my Bill – and which deserves also to be taken at least to select committee for the sort of thorough review that the Canadian case examined.

Advancing the consideration of End of Life Choice through a Bill to be thoroughly examined via select committee, is the best way to respond to the wishes of the NZ electorate.

I concluded therefore that, politically, introducing my Bill is the right thing to do.

In terms of public policy this is the right thing to do.

The law against assisting somebody to end their life, is of course a ‘generally sound law’. But it is also one which has an extraordinarily harmful effect on a small number of individuals.

As the Canadian judgement determined, that law is overly broad.

As a matter of public policy, we need to reconsider the situation of that small number of persons who:

  • clearly consent to the termination of their life, and
  • have a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual.

The eventual scope of any Bill which might be returned to the House from a select committee review is not to be determined here.

My case is that New Zealand needs and – as is evident from recent opinion polls – wants this debate.

Our Parliament should facilitate this discussion by considering this issue afresh through the mechanism of a Bill passing its first reading in the House and proceeding to select committee review.

All New Zealanders should have the opportunity to be heard on this matter. The discussion and review should not be rushed.

My End of Life Choice Bill, when lodged and if drawn from the private members’ bill ballot, will allow this much needed review to occur.

It is the right thing to do.

David Seymour
ACT Party Leader

This is thoughtful and politically gutsy stuff from Seymour. Some people will strongly oppose making any changes on law around euthanasia and other parties have not been prepared to promote debate on it. In fact Seymour has picked up a Labour Member’s Bill carried over from last term by Iain Lees-Galloway after Andrew Little had it withdrawn as ‘not a priority’.

Select committee to consider euthanasia

It was announced yesterday that the Health Select Committee will carry out an inquiry into voluntary euthanasia. Stuff reports:

Voluntary euthanasia to be examined by Parliamentary inquiry

Announcing an inquiry on Wednesday, chairman of the health select committee, Simon O’Connor, said members were “ready to engage” on what was an “important conversation that needs to be had”.

This follows a petition on euthanasia being presented to Parliament on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, former Labour MP Maryan Street and Matt Vickers, the husband of Lecretia Seales, who died of a brain tumour on the same day she lost a High Court bid, presented the End-of-Life Choice petition to MPs.

The petition was delivered to the health select committee on Wednesday and will now be part of a wider inquiry into voluntary euthanasia.

This is a partial posthumous victory for Seales.

It would take a couple of weeks to come up with a plan for the inquiry, O’Connor said.

The inquiry would consider how best to involve the public and what questions and terms of reference need to be included, he said.

The petition, which has 8975 signatures, garnered cross-party support with Seymour, Green MP Kevin Hague, National MP Chris Bishop and Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway all turning up on Tuesday to receive it.

This is a difficult topic to deal with but it’s something that our Parliament should seriously look at so this is a promising announcement.

Lecretia Seales case closes with thanks from judge

Radio NZ sums up the final day of the Lecretia Seales right-to-die case in Judge thanks woman for right-to-die case.

Lecretia Seales, 42, has terminal brain cancer and said in her statement of claim she will face a choice between taking her own life or suffering a slow and painful death, if a doctor cannot lawfully help her die.

Ms Seales wants clarification of whether the Crimes Act prevents a doctor from helping her to die without then being charged themselves.

If Justice Collins finds it does then she wants him to consider whether a ban on assisted dying under the Crimes Act is contrary to her human rights under the Bill of Rights Act.

Solicitor-General Michael Heron, QC…

…argued that New Zealand’s constitution meant such changes had to be made through Parliament rather than through a court; Parliament had considered euthanasia three times in recent years and each time rejected a law change enabling it.

Human Rights Commission lawyer Dr Matthew Palmer:

 the court had the jurisdiction to make a ruling.

Victoria Casey, a lawyer for vulnerable persons umbrella group Care Alliance, said…

…it would effectively legalise assisted dying on demand, leaving groups such as the elderly and the disabled at risk.

Euthanasia was legal in the Netherlands, where 97 people with dementia there had been euthanised in 2013, and there had been a “dramatic” increase in the euthanasia of people with long-term psychiatric illnesses, she said.

“When you combine this with New Zealand’s well-documented problems with elder abuse and the neglect and abuse of the elderly and disabled in care, the prospects are … chilling.”

Voluntary Euthanasia Society lawyer Kate Davenport, QC, said…

…what Ms Seales wanted her doctor to do by prescribing medicine to relieve an aspect of her suffering could not be classed as either homicide nor assault.

“If what Ms Seales’ general practitioner is seeking to do can properly be defined as treatment, then it doesn’t fall within the definition of the Crimes Act,” she said.

That was particularly so, given it was up to Ms Seales to decide whether or not she took the medicine prescribed.

Ms Seales’ lead lawyer Dr Andrew Butler said, in closing…

…sometimes ethics drove the law and sometimes the law drove ethics.

He said it would be wrong to leave the issue to Parliament to deal with.

“You cannot allow the Crown to come along and say ‘leave it to Parliament to have a debate about it’ when there’s no prospect of such a debate occurring and there has never even been select committee hearings on the topic,” he said.

Justice Collins closed the case by…

…thanking Ms Seales for taking the action and said he would endeavour to make a quick decision.

“It is obviously a matter of extreme importance to you but also is extremely important to the way in which medicine and law is conducted in this country,” he said.

He told the lawyers their submissions, both written and oral, had been “exceptional” and said it had been a “privilege” to listen to them.

“I only hope that my judgement will ultimately do justice to the quality of those submissions.”

Some will be happy with his judgement, some won’t.

I can’t find any indication of when the judgement is expected to be made.