Politics

Uphill battle continues for euthanasia

In a historic moment for New Zealand, David Seymour's euthanasia bill has passed its second reading - but there are plenty of battles ahead.

After heated debate and fevered speculation, the End of Life Choice Bill is a step closer to a successful end - but the real fight to get it across the line may just be beginning.

On Wednesday night, 70 MPs voted in favour of David Seymour's bill, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson, late switchers Judith Collins and Willie Jackson, and Seymour, the bill’s sponsor and ACT leader.

Fifty politicians voted against the law, including National leader Simon Bridges, Health Minister David Clark, and strong opponents and National MPs Maggie Barry, Chris Penk, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, Simeon Brown and Simon O’Connor.

Following the announcement of the vote and a cheer from the public gallery, Seymour's smile was tempered with wariness. 

He knew better than to count his chickens, and impressed this was only the third step in a five-step process.

The bill still has to make it through what’s expected to be a chaotic committee of the whole House stage, the third reading, and a referendum before it can be passed into law.

Seymour did say the wider than expected margin gave him some confidence for the bill’s future.

Speaker Trevor Mallard determined it to be a conscience vote - a rarely used convention in New Zealand - meaning MPs did not have to vote along party lines. However, New Zealand First and the Green Party had agreed to vote as a bloc, based on changes Seymour had committed to introducing ahead of its third reading.

The Greens wanted to restrict eligibility to those with a terminal illness and a six-month prognosis, removing the current test of those who were suffering a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”, something disability advocates opposed.

And New Zealand First wanted its referendum.

Emotion and personal stories

Wednesday night’s vote followed 20 emotional speeches, while long-time supporters and opponents watched from the public gallery.

Many spoke about the importance of personal choice, and the need to give Kiwis the ability to die on their own terms and in their own time.

National MP Mark Mitchell said he did not support the bill, but would vote for it in the second reading in order to give his constituents the chance to engage with an important debate through the next stage of the process.

Collins and Jackson were two of those who changed their vote throughout the process, and like many others they had personal stories of loved ones dying in pain.

Collins said she was concerned she would fall on the wrong side of history if she voted down the bill.

Like many others across different parties, Collins commended Seymour for his tireless commitment to the bill – he gave up the chance at becoming a minister in order to see it through.

“Some members of Parliament were seduced by the idea they needed to vote it through to the third reading so there would be a range of options that would be considered to perhaps put in safeguards to the bill."

Jackson had always thought he would vote against the bill, but had changed his mind based on his mother’s experience.

“This kaupapa deserves another korero. I’m not saying I’m going to vote for this in the end, but it deserves another korero.”

Those on both sides spoke about arguments relating to suicide and mental health, elder abuse and coercion, and palliative care.

Meanwhile, National’s Barry said she heard a lot about “hope and courage”, while travelling the country and listening to arguments on both sides.

Barry referred to passing the bill as “pushing the nuclear button”, and approving “state-sanctioned killing”.

“Some members of Parliament were seduced by the idea they needed to vote it through to the third reading so there would be a range of options that would be considered to perhaps put in safeguards to the bill," she said following the vote.

But it was not fit for purpose now, nor was it likely to be, regardless of any changes, she said.

The long road to Parliament

For many bills, passing at second reading is a good indication it is likely to become law, possibly with some minor changes.

But this bill’s journey has been far from normal, and that’s unlikely to stop now.

Seymour dropped the End of Life Choice Bill into the most powerful biscuit tin in the country in 2015, and it was pulled for first reading in 2017.

It’s not the first time the country has considered assisted dying or euthanasia in some form or another, and this bill was a long time in the making.

It began when former MP Maryan Street – who watched from the public gallery on Wednesday – 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.

“For the first time in history we’ve got a debate on this law through to third reading stage – that’s a huge achievement. I feel personally very proud of Lecretia and the sacrifices she made to bring these issues to the forefront."

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.

This is when Seymour adopted it as his personal and political crusade.

High-powered law firm Russell McVeagh, who had acted for Seales in her court battle, agreed to provide services pro bono and drafted the bill, as well as later proposed amendments it seemed would be necessary to get the support of the 61 MPs needed to vote it through.

The proposed legislation to legalise voluntary euthanasia passed first reading 76 votes to 44.

Select committee shambles

But a feuding select committee, which included Barry as deputy chair and the sharp procedural mind of Nick Smith, was unable to gain consensus on any major changes.

On Wednesday night, a number of MPs spoke about how they expected the proposed legislation would have returned from select committee significantly changed, as a reflection of the arguments it had heard.

The committee spent 16 months travelling the country and listening to close to 2000 submitters. More than 38,000 people in total submitted on the bill – the most in Parliament’s history.

National MP Chris Bishop said he had taken 150 pages of notes during the select committee process, amounting to 30,000 words.

The lengthy process, a break from convention, and was a tool deployed by some of the bill’s opponents as a way to stall, filibuster, and encourage opponents to show up and speak against euthanasia.

But Bishop said Kiwis appreciated that opportunity to meet with MPs and share their views.

Along the way, people with strongly held views emerged on both sides of the debate. But in the end, submissions to the committee were overwhelmingly opposed.

This did not reflect wider national polling, which found 68.3 percent of all Kiwis supported voluntary euthanasia.

“For the first time in history we’ve got a debate on this law through to third reading stage – that’s a huge achievement."

One of the most organised opposition campaigns was fronted by human rights lawyer Deborah Manning, backed by former prime minister Bill English and his wife Mary, and co-ordinated by a former National Party press secretary.

The dereliction of duty by some MPs to improve the bill through select committee meant the major changes were yet to come, and politicians were bracing themselves for the next stage where those previously mentioned amendments would be put forward and debated in the house.

In addition, Barry and her cohort planned to lodge at least 120 amendments, a move that would further complicate and restrict the bill – in a bid to make it essentially unworkable.

Seales’ husband and reform advocate Matt Vickers watched the debate from the public gallery on Wednesday night.

Like many others, he knew there was still a way to go, but he also noted the historic moment.

“For the first time in history we’ve got a debate on this law through to third reading stage – that’s a huge achievement. I feel personally very proud of Lecretia and the sacrifices she made to bring these issues to the forefront,” he said.

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