Politics

Euthanasia’s parliamentary battle is won. Now the real fight begins

Euthanasia supporters have finally won the support of Parliament, with David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill succeeding where others had failed. But with the fate of the law now in the public’s hands, the real war may just be beginning.

After months of debate and controversy, the final vote on euthanasia reform was almost an anti-climax.

Parliament erupted with applause at the news that David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill would become law, with a more comfortable margin in favour than some had expected.

With 69 votes in favour and 51 against, the vote for the legislation was healthier than previous parliamentary wins on polarising social issues such as civil unions (65 to 55) and the decriminalisation of prostitution (60 to 59).

But the impassioned speeches from MPs on each side of the debate showed just how divisive the issue has been, with politicians from the same party, ethnicity or religion pitted against each other.

Opening the third reading debate, Seymour said public polls showing large majorities in favour of euthanasia were a sign of the “deep and unsolicited conviction” felt by many.

“I've listened to New Zealanders talk about their experiences, literally from Kerikeri to Gore. Overwhelmingly, they've said to me: ‘I've seen bad death. If my time comes and I'm not doing well, then I want choice. And, by the way, it's nobody else's business but mine.’”

Politicians had to remind themselves that the bill was about how the most vulnerable in New Zealand society were treated, he said.

“If some people are suffering at the end of their life, do we say to them that they must suffer some more because we in this House lack the courage to make better laws or even let our fellow New Zealanders have a say in a referendum on that law?

“No. We must give them choice.”

“If this bill passes, I cannot imagine the spectre of euthanasia - ever-present, looming over every single consultation, there but not there, present but unspoken until it is dared to be given light. This bill dims the privilege of care.”

National MP Shane Reti, a former GP who noted he would be the only person in Parliament authorised to euthanise New Zealanders if the law was passed, asked MPs to think about the last time they accompanied a sick older family member or friend to the doctor.

Legalising euthanasia would “change the very fabric of the doctor-patient relationship" and erode the trust that was so crucial, Reti said.

“If this bill passes, I cannot imagine the spectre of euthanasia - ever-present, looming over every single consultation, there but not there, present but unspoken until it is dared to be given light. This bill dims the privilege of care.”

He also challenged some of Parliament’s Māori MPs, suggesting the legislation went “far beyond where we are meant to reach” in Te Ao Māori.

“I ask you to put all of this aside and tell me: what does your Māori heart say on this matter?...This Māori heart says no.”

But Willie Jackson, one of those mentioned by Reti, made a case for Māori support for euthanasia when he spoke about his discussions with Māori leaders on the eve of the vote.

“[One leader] said his views about tikanga are this: tikanga is about dignity and mana. He said that the most important tikanga is mana, and the ultimate indignity is living without mana…

“He says that mana is everything - for Māori, for Pākehā. That means dignity is everything. He also says that our old people say that death isn't the end anyway, but just the beginning.”

Maggie Barry suggested creating a right to die "would all too easily become a duty to die for others". Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

As the bill’s sponsor, Seymour opened the debate, but its most vociferous opponent - National MP Maggie Barry - closed it with a scathing criticism of the legislation and a suggestion that “the so-called right to die for some would all too easily become a duty to die for others”.

“Our role as lawmakers is to ensure the greatest good for the greatest number. We have a duty to ensure that the degree of safety built into the legislation matches the gravity of the risk.

“The stakes are very high, and we each have to ask ourselves the question and then be able to live with the answer: how many unintended deaths are too many?”

But Barry’s speech, and a rally outside Parliament earlier in the day, was in vain, with just one vote shifting to her side from the second reading.

While euthanasia supporters were justifiably jubilant at the vote, their fight is not over yet.

The bill will now go to a referendum at next year’s election, a concession made by Seymour to New Zealand First in exchange for its MPs’ nine votes.

It was a trade-off which many pro-euthanasia MPs did not want, but a necessary one for the bill’s success; had the party instead block-voted in opposition, the vote would have been lost as a 60-all stalemate.

Seymour expressed confidence that the public would be on his side, noting that polls had consistently shown a sizeable majority in favour of euthanasia - but he is not complacent about the lengths opponents may go to to prevent a law change.

“Overseas opponents of this type of legislation have openly admitted their strategy is fear, uncertainty and doubt, and our job is going to be to ensure that we have the proper information about how this bill really works.”

With cannabis legalisation also going to a referendum next year, and abortion reform opponents likely to raise the Government’s changes on the campaign trail, we may be heading into a full-blown culture war over what Barry called “the most liberal Parliament in New Zealand’s history”.

Barry’s decision to retire from Parliament will theoretically free her up for a concerted campaign for the No vote, with the MP promising to devote her “not inconsiderable energies into making sure that people are aware of the risks of this bill”.

“It won't be over until the election referendum is counted but it is it is going to be a major war. The battle tonight was lost, but we are involved now in a major war.”

As a party leader reliant on the voters of Epsom for his spot in Parliament, Seymour has less troops with which to fight that war.

Striking a balance between the bill and his other commitments is something he has become accustomed to

“I have made sacrifices for this bill, I turned down a limo - I couldn't be a minister if I wanted to have a private member's bill.

“If the good people of Epsom decided it's time for me to retire, it would be a comfort if this bill passed the referendum of course, but I don't think we face a tradeoff like that.”

With cannabis legalisation also going to a referendum next year, and abortion reform opponents likely to raise the Government’s changes on the campaign trail, we may be heading into a full-blown culture war over what Barry called “the most liberal Parliament in New Zealand’s history”.

But that is in the future: for now, Seymour and euthanasia supporters are celebrating their success where so many other politicians have failed.

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