Highlights from the final debate on the End of Life Choice Bill
SIMEON BROWN (National—Pakuranga): Speech at the third reading of the End of Life Choice Bill
I’ve spoken on this bill a number of times during its passage through the House, and it will be no surprise to members that I’ll be voting against it. I’ve been clear in my view that this bill sets a dangerous precedent and poses a real threat to vulnerable New Zealanders. Any member who has taken the time to engage with this issue will be familiar with the arguments, which is why I’ve chosen to focus my contribution not on the failings of this bill but on the abysmal process this bill has had through this House.
Reflecting on my relatively short time in Parliament, I note members from all sides spend enormous amounts of time discussing issues which are relatively minor, taking part in the process in an open and transparent manner. However, when it comes to this issue—an issue of life and death—the process has been manipulated with deals made in closed rooms and MPs hiding behind a referendum, too afraid to make the tough decisions that we’re elected here to make.
Right from the day this bill came up for its first reading, the processes of Parliament were used to advance this bill’s cause. At the first reading, tricks were played to bring the debate forward to a members’ day when it wasn’t expected; designed to ensure members were caught off guard. At the select committee stage, despite more submissions being made on this bill than any other piece of legislation this Parliament has ever seen, the member in charge of this bill, David Seymour, simply ignored the 90 percent of submissions which were opposed to this bill, instead formulating his own sponsor’s report, which ignored the changes proposed by the Justice Committee and ignored the input of those who submitted. While I commend the work of the select committee, the sponsor’s actions show his lack of respect for this process. At the committee of the whole House, the sponsor not only waited to table his Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) 259 the day before the debate started but he voted against every single amendment raised by anyone, other than what he proposed in his own SOP.
Serious issues have been ignored, such as the rights of doctors, hospice, and palliative care experts to conscientiously object to this process. Increasing the age of eligibility to an appropriate age to ensure that youth don’t qualify for assisted suicide: voted down. Ensuring that family members are at least informed of the fact that their loved one is ending their life by assisted suicide or euthanasia: voted down. Adequately protecting the rights of those with disabilities: voted down. These significant amendments and many, many more were voted down by the member in charge and those in support of the bill, with very few MPs who support the bill even contributing to the committee of the whole House, and some only contributing by trying to have a closure motion.
And then came the deals. A deal made with the Green Party whereby they would support this bill in a block, on the basis of a few changes to the eligibility criteria for this bill. The party which considers itself the conscience of the nation refuses its members to be able to exercise a conscience vote on a bill of this magnitude—not only on the bill as a whole but on every single SOP.
The other deal was made with the New Zealand First Party, whereby this bill would go to a referendum at the next election. This not only cynically secured nine votes for this bill but is giving MPs the opportunity to hide behind a referendum rather than actually voting on their conscience here in this House today. The cynicism not only extended to the New Zealand First Party but to MPs on both sides of this House who voted for a referendum despite being opposed in principle to referendums. With these two deals, 17 MPs will not be casting conscience votes here tonight—something which could materially change the outcome of this bill if they were given that right.
With all of these cynical backroom deals and disregard for the process, it is symbolic of what this bill stands for. Our elderly and our sick will be put at risk of being abused, manipulated, and processes in this bill being ignored, and the rights of doctors and patients set aside in the name of choice. If parliamentary process has been run in this manner, how can we trust that the bill’s processes won’t also be abused? And if they are, well, the person involved will be dead, with no opportunity for redress.
This is a conscience vote, and for good reason. The member in charge started his speech by talking about polling numbers. In fact, that’s basically all he’s talked about; the only correspondence I’ve ever received from the member in charge is telling me how many National Party people support this bill. He was asking me to consider my majority at the next election rather than the principles and the detail of this bill. I understand and respect the views of people in my electorate who disagree with me on this issue, and I’m open to Mr Seymour’s polling numbers being proven right. But it offends me to think that David Seymour simply boils this life and death issue down to a few polling numbers.
I came to Parliament to make the hard decisions, to look at the evidence, and to make a decision; not to be swayed by polls with leading questions. This issue is about the most vulnerable. I have opposed, and I will continue to oppose, this bill.
CHRIS PENK (National—Helensville): Speech at the third reading of the End of Life Choice Bill
The End of Life Choice Bill, so called, seeks to establish a regime—let us be clear—to facilitate euthanasia and assisted suicide in this country; respectively, the act of ending the life of another through a lethal dose of medication, or to do it to oneself. There are a number of questions we should ask ourselves in this House today.
The first is not whether some people should die in a way that the bill allows but whether any people could die in a way that the bill does not allow. Put another way, the question is not whether it is possible to imagine whether a person who is competent, in good mental health, has a supportive family, and whose first language is English, the language of the death transaction, might be able to make a choice and not be bullied into an early grave but, rather, whether it is possible to imagine others who lack such natural advantages. I can think of constituents in both categories, and I acknowledge them all.
The next question we might ask is: what is the number of vulnerable New Zealanders who may be coerced to exercise the so-called choice, absent other choices. A further question might be not whether the bill is better than it was before—less dangerous, in other words—but whether it is good enough now.
With regard to the referendum proposal that was inserted at the committee stage of the debate, we ask ourselves: is it responsible for us as lawmakers to hand a loaded gun to fellow New Zealanders and say, “Don’t worry, I have applied the safety catch.”, knowing very well that for many New Zealanders the only words of the bill that they will ever read before such a referendum will be the title of the bill, containing the euphemism that it does?
Recent polling has indicated clearly that members of the general public, quite understandably, given that it is not their job but ours to understand and interrogate the details of such legislation, misunderstand the nature of what it is that Mr Seymour is proposing. Seventy percent believe that the bill concerns itself with “Do not resuscitate” orders. In fact, this is already legally and ethically accepted in New Zealand today. Seventy-four percent believe that the switching off of life support is within the remit of the bill, notwithstanding that, again, legally and indeed ethically, as far as the medical profession is concerned, this is already perfectly legitimate in this country. Some seventy-two percent believe that the bill contains an exclusion for mental health, precluding those who are suffering perhaps from depression having received a terminal illness diagnosis in recent times, for example, from accessing the provisions to make the choice as referred to in the bill.
Even advocates for the bill—and I do not blame them for this; again, it is our job and not theirs—often do not know the detail of the bill. I was speaking recently with one who spoke very passionately and articulately and, frankly, very well in support of the bill and urged me to support it. But she did not believe me when I said that it would be possible for a person to receive a diagnosis of terminal illness on a Wednesday, gain the necessary approvals under the bill that same day, and be dead before the weekend. I have double-checked, as I had promised that constituent I would, and I can confirm, having read the bill, that there is no stand-down period, no time frame involved other than the 48 hours between the approval and the lethal dose of medication being administered.
In the context of the referendum still—before I move on—we must face the prospect of misinformation by the sponsor of the bill, David Seymour. He has previously said in this very House that the bill has received a clean bill of health from the Attorney-General. That much is not true. The Attorney-General was explicit in stating that it discriminates on the basis of age, opening the possibility of a challenge through the courts. And this is the missing piece in the constitutional jigsaw puzzle that the sponsor of the bill has recently exposed his own ignorance upon. It would not be required, as he has just said, that a member of Parliament necessarily would have to in the future bring such a change to this House.
There is misunderstanding by supporter MPs too, who have claimed that it would be a matter for the family doctor of a person. There is no such provision in the bill, requiring that a doctor who signs off the person, whether the first or the second doctor, need ever have met the person themselves before. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was the subject of a Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) that was put forward by a fellow MP who was concerned about the lack of meaningful safeguards. That SOP was not supported by the sponsor of the bill. It failed, and, accordingly, the bill retains that outstanding requirement, that shortfall.
These are the myths and misunderstandings, my fellow parliamentarians and my fellow New Zealanders that we will have to contend with if the sponsor’s approach of full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes is adopted. It is not good enough.
The support for the bill, as expressed by its sponsor, is predicated on a false choice. There is improving care, and technology and pain management techniques allow the improvement naturally to continue. The words “There is no alternative” ring hollow. So too the syllogism that says, “We must do something; this is something; therefore, we must do it.”
There are other things that we can and should do in the context of end-of-life care. And there are things that we should not do as well—certainly those things that seek to solve one problem but substitute in its place many others. Whatever the result today, it will not be available for members of this House to claim later that they did not know. Numerous SOPs, proposed amendments, have highlighted the outstanding defects, and this has been the purpose or at least the result of the committee stage of the House.
Key issues remain, and I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list but merely some of the more important. No independent witnesses are required at any stage of the process, including at the death—independent witnesses being, of course, those who are not involved in the decision-making process, and, of course, the person themselves, for obvious reasons, would not be available as a witness later. In contrast, Victoria’s equivalent law requires at the administration stage, both the request and the lethal dose, a witness. So too in Oregon—in fact, two witnesses in that case—and likewise in Victoria and Canada.
Another such point: the person eligible doesn’t need to be mentally competent when the lethal dose is administered. Thereby, we’ve passed up an opportunity in this House to rectify the bill such that a person is now denied the opportunity, effectively, to reverse their decision, having made it when they were deemed competent—noting, of course, that the threshold for competence is so low as merely being that they understand the nature and consequences and can express that at some time.
There is no prescribed cooling-off period. Forty-eight hours, merely, between the administration of the lethal dose of medication following the initial approval, as I have stated earlier, is a common misunderstanding, whereas, by contrast, in Oregon, it is some 15 days; nine days in Victoria; and 10 in Canada. Again, if this sounds familiar, it’s because we made this very proposal in the committee stage, and, again, it was rejected by the sponsor of the bill and others who supported him in doing so. So it is that we do not have that sort of cooling-off period, that protection, and it is particularly relevant in the context of evidence that we have heard that mental ill health—particularly, and explicitly, depression—often follows immediately after the diagnosis of a terminal illness, only to pass, at least in some cases.
Contrary to the claim of the sponsor of the bill, only the attending medical practitioner needs to check for coercion. The second doctor—the independent medical practitioner, so-called—has no such requirement under the bill.
I could go on. Given time constraints, I will not, but even if there were no other defects—and please believe me when I say that there are—these alone would be sufficient to indicate, in my mind, that we have a very troubling answer to our question that I asked previously, which is: what is the number of vulnerable New Zealanders who may be coerced to exercise this so-called choice, absent other choices?
I’ll finish with a run-through of the bill by the numbers: 39,000, approximately, is the number of submissions, a record received by the select committee; 90 percent—more than, in fact—those opposed to the bill. Those who knew enough or cared enough to get in touch with the committee and express a view opposed it overwhelmingly. The number 40—that’s the number of clauses in the bill, as compared with 143 in the equivalent Victorian legislation. So when we heard earlier from supporters of the bill that not too much scrutiny was required because there were relatively few clauses, that is quite clearly absurd in the context of that which is not in the bill being as significant as that which is.
The question is not whether some people should die in a way that the bill allows, but whether any people could die in a way that the bill does not allow. We don’t know the number of people that will be coerced into an early death, but we do know that it is not zero. I oppose this bill.