No room for error on assisted dying

Most Kiwis aren't aware that the end of life choice act is not a concept they'll be voting for, but specific, unmovable legislation. And if we make a mistake, death is a heavy penalty, writes Caralise Trayes. 

A new Colmar Brunton poll revealed last weekend doesn’t do any favours in helping people recognise the binding referendum question they will actually be asked at this year's election. It only reinforces the point that Kiwis aren’t being equipped to make an informed vote.

I read headlines stating the majority of public (63 percent) support legalising euthanasia, according to the poll. To the untrained eye, that looks like some strong evidence that the End of Life Choice Act (EOLC Act) is a done deal. But to me it just smacks of the same shallow approach to this vote that many are tempted into making.

Hold that poll up against other polls that show 74 percent of Kiwis don’t know we can already turn off life support, 70 percent incorrectly think the EOLC Act will legalise the choice not to be resuscitated (which is already legal), and 75 percent thought it would only be available when all other treatments have been tried... so I wonder what information we are basing our poll voting on?

Us Kiwis need to know we will in fact be voting on a very specific piece of legislation; not the concept of euthanasia. If we vote ‘yes’ in the binding referendum, the law is passed and active. No changes or adjustments can be made to this Act. So we should be examining the piece of law in front of us. However hard it is, we must put aside our view on the topic of assisted dying, and check this is the right law for the job.

We need to carefully assess and analyse this law to ensure it allows the autonomy to choose - something that many of us seek, while protecting those who shouldn’t have access, for one reason or another. And there’s no space for error - if we get it wrong, death is a big penalty.

Like most Kiwis, I’m no lawyer or legal expert; so we have to talk to the experts who can give us the information and insight we need to make this decision. And we must listen to the people this law will directly impact. The truth is, that while autonomy is something desirable we have to acknowledge our choices will impact others, so it’s only fair to hear what the ‘others’ are saying when considering this vote. The medical industry representatives deserve our ear.

I think many of us assume that if this law has gone through a long and arduous parliamentary process, then it should be robust. But if you take a few moments to look at the detail, you will find the process wasn’t as good as it should have been. After a record-breaking number of submissions given to the Justice Select Committee when this law was a bill, the committee provided very little feedback to Parliament. In fact, the committee laid the responsibility of assessing the law and the submissions squarely back on the shoulders of MPs. This is not ‘normal practice’ in Parliament, despite David Seymour saying the law has gone through the “most rigorous process of any parliamentary bill in recent memory”. Maybe by rigorous, he means lengthy? Or contentious? Or laboursome?

To negotiate and untangle the finer details of the law, there were 114 Supplementary Order Papers presented by MPs; 113 of them were voted down. The main adjustments made by those papers that passed were changing the eligibility criteria by making assisted dying only available if someone has less than six months to live, and a guarantee this law would go to a binding referendum. Both those conditions were done to ensure Green MPs and NZ First would vote through the law, despite this being a ‘conscience vote’ - not because of any standalone merit of good law-making practice.

Many MPs completely disagreed with sending this to a binding referendum. Even some MPs who supported the bill turned and voted against it because they ardently believed it shouldn’t be presented as a referendum. Like Labour MP Louisa Wall, who said: “That is appalling and that is abhorrent. You’re putting us all in an untenable situation. My principles will not let me vote for the referendum, even if it means the bill fails."

So when we get the promotional material and see the advertisements on TV produced by the Government, and hear ACT MP David Seymour and his party representatives speak on this Act, we must remember we still need to do our own homework. We have effectively been asked to weigh in on the parliamentary process and act as an MP in assessing this law.

We have a tremendous responsibility with this binding referendum. And it’s no wonder there is such fierce debate happening throughout our nation because of it. We must not be swung onto a side on this based on emotional personal stories that involve fear and despair. Even though it is a huge requirement asked of us, we must assess the law and keep as analytical as we can.

Caralise Trayes is a journalist and author of '​The Final Choice. End of Life Suffering: Is Assisted Dying the Answer?​' A book that includes interviews with more than 20 experts investigating the End of Life Choice Act and documents her search for truth.

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