Tensions and hot tempers over euthanasia law

Over the past 16 months tensions have risen and tempers have flared as a parliamentary committee considers the controversial assisted dying bill. Laura Walters takes a look behind closed doors at the journey of the End of Life Choice Bill.

The end is in sight for David Seymour’s euthanasia bill, after more than a year of public meetings, thousands of oral submissions, and some select committee scraps.

Newsroom understands that during the process, tensions between politicians rose to the point where some members of Parliament's Justice Committee were concerned no report would be produced.

But co-operation within the select committee room has been somewhat restored over the past couple of months, and on Tuesday afternoon the committee will report back to the House with what’s expected to be a revision-tracked report.

Seymour may have hoped the committee process would take the bill slightly further, with the three main changes needed to get the support needed to pass the bill through its second and third reading and onto a public referendum in 2020.

But no matter: if he has to, he will no doubt draft the necessary amendments – with the help of lawyers – and put them to the House during committee stages later this year.

All things being equal, the bill is expected to pass by the end of this year.

Seymour will be hoping that gives Justice Minister Andrew Little and the Electoral Commission enough time to get the question on the ticket in time for the 2020 election.

ACT leader David Seymour entered his own private member’s bill into the ballot in October 2015. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Long ride to justice committee

While it might seem like things are on track now, this is a recent development in what’s been a long and hard-fought battle for the bill.

The proposed law is controversial and lends itself to emotive responses. An added complication is the fact MPs will vote based on their conscience rather than along party lines.

There has also been a coordinated and hardworking opposition campaign, with two leading campaigners sitting on the committee considering the bill in the form of National’s Nick Smith and Maggie Barry.

It all began when former MP Maryan Street presented a petition, asking Parliament to investigate public attitudes to law that would allow medically-assisted dying for people with terminal illnesses or irreversible conditions which were making their life unbearable.

The petition came soon after the court case of Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales who, diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, challenged New Zealand's euthanasia laws in the High Court asking for the right to die with the assistance of her GP.

The health committee carried out the inquiry, but then-Prime Minister John Key ruled out the government introducing its own voluntary euthanasia bill.

Seymour’s frustration at the campaign run by the Catholic Church grew. 

Meanwhile, ACT’s Seymour entered his own private member’s bill into the ballot in October 2015, and in June 2017 it was introduced to the House.

In December 2017 it passed its first reading in a conscience vote of 76 to 44, with Seymour asking that it be reported back to the House nine months later.

Record number of submissions

It fast became clear this was a hot topic, and the Justice Committee received more than 35,000 written submissions. Seymour has repeatedly likened the debate to other contentious issues like prostitution law reform, and marriage equality.

Many of the submissions were short – sometimes as little as one sentence – and in line with other submissions from groups opposed to the bill. Seymour’s frustration at the campaign run by the Catholic Church grew. 

Well-known Catholics, and the country’s former first couple, Mary and Bill English, were happy to put in the hard yards for the ‘against’ campaign.

Former Prime Minister Bill English and his wife Mary, committed Catholics, have been active in opposing proposed changes to euthanasia laws. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Mary English, who is a GP, has spoken at the select committee and at town hall meetings across the country. Her husband, who holds the same view, has also opposed the bill, but it's clear Mary is the more fervent of the two.

National’s Maggie Barry, who was also raised Catholic, has stepped in where the the couple have not been present. Barry has fronted at debates against Seymour, and spoken against the bill at public meetings.

It’s understood she was also the mastermind behind the plan to push for every Kiwis’ right to have their submission heard orally by the committee, if they desired.

This led to an impressive form of filibustering and kept the committee busy for five months.

During the consultation process, about 3500 people asked to speak directly to the committee, but not all who expressed an interest showed up to say their bit. A rough calculation puts oral submissions between 1500 and 2000, spread across 40 hearings. The average length of a submission was nine minutes, and hearings ran an average of six hours.

A complaint was made that Maggie Barry was "demeaning" to submitters during the hearings. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It is important to hear a range of oral submissions when select committees are considering legislation, as it gives people a chance to speak to their written submission, and for the committee to ask specific questions, or draw on the person’s expertise and experience. But many of the oral submitters expressed the same point of view, and did not suggest ways to change the substance of the bill, rather to state they were morally and spiritually opposed.

Questions were also raised about Barry's demeanour and treatment of submitters during the hearings. Last year, euthanasia advocate Dr Jack Havill lodged a complaint against Barry, saying she was showing bias and was “disparaging to submitters”.

In the end, both written and oral submissions were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed law.

Analysis by anti-euthanasia group Euthanasia-Free NZ found about 85 percent of published oral submissions were opposed. About 13 percent were in support and 3 percent were either unclear or neutral.

Meanwhile, the Care Alliance analysed almost all of the submissions made on the bill and found 90.2 percent were opposed, 8.1 percent were in favour and 1.7 percent were neutral or unclear. The alliance is made up of conservative groups, as well as New Zealand Health Professionals Alliance, Hospice New Zealand and Palliative Care Nurses New Zealand, who also oppose to the bill.

However, Otago University research from last year found on average, 68.3 percent of all New Zealanders supported euthanasia with 14.9 percent opposed. The rest were neutral or unsure.

The survey analysed existing research investigating New Zealanders’ attitudes to euthanasia or assisted dying over the past 20 years. It included views of 36,304 Kiwis.

The home stretch

Once the countrywide roadshow wrapped up in November, the select committee came back to Wellington to work on its report to the House, including any changes and recommendations.

This was easier said than done, with a split committee of four Labour MPs and four National MPs, including Maggie Barry and Nick Smith.

The committee’s four Labour MPs voted for the bill in its first reading, and National’s Chris Bishop and Mark Mitchell also voted in favour.

But Newsroom understands National has stuck together inside the committee room, with Smith and Barry continuing to lead the charge against the bill. As recently as February, one member said there was a risk of the committee not producing a report.

By March it looked like National would only support some small technical changes, rather than any substantive amendments, which would be ultimately be needed to get the support of the Green Party and New Zealand First.

But recently, the eight, plus Seymour who has been joining the group as a non-voting member, have improved relations to produce what’s expected to be a revision-tracked report, accompanied by substantial commentary.

That commentary will likely address the amendments necessary to get it through the next two votes.

To be on the safe side, Seymour has produced his own sponsor’s report, which he says outlines recommendations on how the bill might be improved.

This would usually be the job of the select committee, but given the mood of the room, Seymour obviously wanted to be sure he was being as clear as possible about what he thought could be changed, while maintaining the essence and intent of his bill.

It’s understood to also be about half the length of what will be released by the select committee on Tuesday afternoon.

In his report, Seymour suggests including a binding referendum on the commencement of the bill at the 2020 election (in order to lock in New Zealand First’s nine votes). He also suggests amending the eligibility criteria to limit eligibility to terminal illness and, for avoidance of doubt, stating that access to assisted dying cannot be by reason of mental health conditions or disabilities only (to ensure eight votes from the Green Party caucus). He suggests incorporating the Access to Palliative Care Bill sponsored by Barry (in the hope of securing the nine votes needed from National to move it through second and third reading). These changes would be added to the bill at committee stage.

Seymour has told media he is happy with how things have ended, and “quietly confident”.

Now it’s onto the home stretch, with the bill most likely to come up for second reading after Budget speeches conclude in July, and pass by the end of the year, in what's expected to be a chaotic scene in the House, with MPs walking through the doors to vote for each change, as well as to show their final position.

Then the politicians' work is done, and all will be in the hands of voters come polling day, 2020.

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