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‘Allow people a choice over their manner of dying’

Ahead of a five-part series examining submissions on the End of Life Choice Bill, Jeremy Rees takes a look at one prominent voice urging assisted dying be made law

One of the most high-profile New Zealanders, Dame Jenny Gibbs, has come out in support of assisted dying and urged Parliament to pass David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill.

Her submission to Parliament’s Justice select committee is one of several hundred made public this week when it was uploaded to the committee’s website.

Dame Jenny, a philanthropist, art collector and New Zealand’s commissioner to next year’s Venice Biennale, says she became convinced that being able to choose assisted dying was necessary as she watched her mother die of cancer in Mercy Hospital.

Her mother became anxious waiting for her four-hourly morphine injection to ease the pain. When it became unbearable, she discharged herself to return home to die.

“Our wonderful humane doctor at the time, gave her a bottle of Morphine in syrup form and left it beside her bed to take as and when she felt the need. The result was almost miraculous. Once she felt in control, her anxiety diminished and she barely needed the morphine for another few weeks of good life.

“Ultimately the cancer took her but the lesson in observing the difference that having control made to her, was never forgotten by myself or my three teenage daughters.”

Dame Jenny, who was made a Dame in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, said she has done research into assisted dying and become convinced it is necessary to restore a sense of control to people who are dying.

“There is a lot of evidence that people who are given the means to end their lives often don't use it,” she wrote to the Justice committee.

“Once they have the peace of mind that comes with a sense of control over their own end, they simply don't feel so desperate.

“Often people with terminal illness or in an unbearable situation, will take their own life prematurely as they don't want to wait too long until they are unable to act.”

She argues that palliative care and hospices have improved markedly in the years since her mother’s death and do a good job.

“Nevertheless there are still many people who die unnecessarily horrible, miserable & painful deaths. There are many instances that hospices cannot help. People with motor neurone diseases can die miserable long and lingering deaths. Not everyone can access hospices. I know of an elderly Pacific Island gentleman in South Auckland who was dying of severe emphysema - a long lingering miserable condition from which he passionately wished to be relieved but no one was really able to help.”

One of the most vexed issues in the submissions on the Bill is how to ensure that elderly, frail people don’t feel pressured into taking their own lives by families or friends, or through not wishing to be a burden. The issue comes up repeatedly in the submissions, which Newsroom is reviewing as part of a focus on the issue of assisted dying. 

But Dame Jenny believes there are enough safeguards in the proposed Bill to make sure no one feels pressured. (The Bill proposes a system in which a person talks to their medical practitioner about assisted dying but then a second practitioner has to become involved to make sure the discussions are robust. There would also be a Health Ministry monitoring committee to oversee the system).

“There are more than enough checks in this draft bill - too many in my honest opinion - to ensure that the person requesting an assisted death is doing so entirely of their own volition and that they genuinely qualify. I would fight to the death to ensure anyone who didn't support medically assisted death, was not pressured into using it.”

She concludes by telling the committee: “I am a loving dog owner and over the years have had to have several very elderly dogs put down. As I hold them and watch them peacefully slip away after an injection, I invariably think how lucky they are and how cruel is the law that will not allow people that same peaceful end. We expect people to be responsible for the manner of their living. I plead with you to allow people a choice & sense of control over the manner of their dying.”

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