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Assisted dying bill doesn’t need a white knight

ACT leader David Seymour responds to a piece Newsroom ran called 'Three changes to save the euthanasia law', pointing out that disability is not a qualification for assisted dying

Chris Ford wrote the kind of polite and thoughtful piece that, in a perfect world, would be normal political debate. Because Mr Ford’s style is actually not normal, and we need more of it, I’ll try to reply in kind.

Writers generally don’t get to pick the titles that appear above their work, the editor usually does that, but whoever chose Three changes to save the euthanasia law jumped the gun a little. Assisted Dying consistently scores 75 percent support from New Zealanders, according to multiple reputable polling companies. In its first reading in Parliament, it was passed 76-44. Some MPs will almost certainly change their mind before the second and third reading votes (a bill must be voted on three times), but it’s not clear the Bill is in need of white knight, no matter how keen Mr Ford may be for the role.

But what of his suggestions? One of Mr Ford’s improvements is an open possibility, one is based on a misunderstanding of the Bill, and it’s very difficult to grasp where he is coming from with the third. That’s probably about the right balance. I think the Bill I drafted is pretty sound, but I’d be amazed if it wasn’t improved during the during the select committee process.

What’s fair enough is being very tough on coercion. Mr Ford suggests someone who tries to pervert the process of the Bill by coercing someone to end their life should be found guilty of a crime. The intention of the Bill is that it is based on choice. Only the person in question can decide if they want an assisted death, so we are on the same page.

The Bill provides people who follow its provisions with protection from being prosecuted under the Crimes Act. Failing to follow the provisions removes that protection and leaves someone liable for 14 years’ prison if they assist in a person’s death, or three years if they encourage it. Technically the Bill already does what Mr Ford wants, making it a punishable crime to encourage Assisted Dying, but if stating that feature explicitly would give reassurance then it might be worth doing.

The Bill as it stands allows a person with a prognosis of less than six months to live to be assisted with ending their life. The most common condition of someone who would use this is a cancer patient with a type of cancer where the suffering is not easily handled by palliative care. This was exactly the situation Lecretia Seales faced, and Mr Ford says he supports this kind of choice.

Removing the ‘grievous and irremediable’ provision from the Bill would not be an improvement. Its removal would make no difference to the disabled, but an enormous difference to those suffering the worst deaths from degenerative diseases.

The Bill also allows a person with a ‘grievous and irremediable condition’ to access assisted dying, and this is where Mr Ford objects. Disabilities are almost by definition irremediable, and it could easily be argued that a lot of disabilities are grievous. It would seem this is a Bill that says disabled people’s lives aren’t worth living and we’re giving them the option of just ending it now.

Not so fast. It all changes when you read one line further. Having a grievous and irremediable condition is not enough to access assisted dying under the Bill. You must also be in an ‘advanced state of decline in capability’. A paraplegic in a wheelchair just wouldn’t qualify; their condition might be irremediable, some might think it grievous, but it simply isn’t a state of decline, let alone an advanced one.

It’s a shame Mr Ford didn’t mention this detail of the Bill because it’s critical. Not only does it mean disability is not a qualification for assisted dying, it points to the people who do desperately want choice. One such person was Martin Hames. He committed suicide alone and botched it, the only mercy being that he got to say goodbye in hospital to his friends who he hadn’t been able to tell of his plans. You can read a touching column about Martin here. Another is David Seymour, not me, but a guy from Whangarei with motor neuron disease. He is gradually deteriorating to the point where his own muscles will suffocate him. He wants choice.

So removing the ‘grievous and irremediable’ provision from the Bill would not be an improvement. Its removal would make no difference to the disabled, but an enormous difference to those suffering the worst deaths from degenerative diseases.

Mr Ford’s final suggestion is that in addition to two doctors and, if there is any doubt about the patient’s mental capacity, a psychiatrist, patients should have to have their case examined by three lay people. This is the one I struggle to comprehend.

Let’s be practical. You are at the end of your life, dying. Chances are you have navigated a dense forest of appointments, tests, and treatments, perhaps for years, but now your time is done and all you want is to be able to control how you go and when you go, with dignity. The Bill already requires that two doctors, the second one selected independently by a government agency, examine you and make judgments about your physical condition, your mental capacity, talk to your family seeking out hints of coercion, and report all they do to a newly-created registrar at the Ministry of Health. The suggestion that such a person should then have to have three lay people judge them and the merits of the case just doesn’t take into account the practical reality that people seeking an assisted death face.

Mr Ford’s comments are very welcome — we should have a good airing of concerns about the End of Life Choice Bill. I hope it shows more people that the Bill has been designed carefully to address his concerns.

Act Party leader David Seymour's Member's Bill, the End of Life Choice Bill, passed its first reading and will be considered by Parliament's Justice select committee. Public submissions close on February 20.

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