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Breakfast TVNZ: Vulnerable Kiwis could fall victims to End of Life Bill, lawyers concerned

Richard McLeod from Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders says the current bill is “unworkable”. As well as Māori, the LVNZ says the Bill poses a threat to other marginalised groups including the elderly, the poor and the lonely.

Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders also featured on Newshub today. Visit www.lvnz.org.nz

Jack Tame:
After more than a year of consultation and thousands of submissions to End of Life Choice Bill is set to go through it's next stage in Parliament, but it's not without opposition both in parliament and outside Parliament. The group Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders opposes the controversial euthanasia Bill citing 35 flaws.

Here to tell us more is lawyer Richard McLeod, thanks for joining us. What are your concerns with the Bill?

Richard McLeod:
Well this bill leads to the victimisation of the vulnerable. We've looked at this bill for quite some time. We've just seen a Select Committee report that says that this bill is not workable and that the committee doesn't even want to recommend it to be passed.

And that doesn't surprise us, because as a group of lawyers we think that this Bill is hopelessly flawed, is probably the worst, most dangerous, half-baked, poorly thought through piece of legislation we’ve seen. And it's going to lead to the deaths of a lot of vulnerable New Zealanders.

Jack: Okay, explain what your problem specifically with the Bill as it stands are?

Richard: The Bill really is a wolf wrapped in sheep's clothing, because you see there's a big difference between what it promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. It promises choice for a few New Zealanders who are not vulnerable, and then it goes and delivers to large numbers of terminally ill, chronically ill, mentally ill and disabled New Zealanders the same choice – but we say that they really don't have a choice. It's almost a ‘Claytons’ choice. Because we're talking about people in vulnerable situations. Let's have a look at the vulnerable in our society. We're talking about people who are old, who are living alone, who are lonely – 1 and 5 elderly people live in extreme loneliness – people who are victims of elder abuse, people who have been rejected by their family or their whanau, and people who have been failed by the state. And what this Bill tells those vulnerable New Zealanders is that “if you think that you're suffering and your lives are no longer worth living, then your government and some of your doctors will help you end your lives”. And I think that's actually repugnant to the New Zealand that I know.

Jack: The way I understand the legislation as it stands, and it is still currently being worked through the Select Committee process, is that it isn't simply ticking a box, “I want to end my life”. There are various provisions built-in that mean vulnerable New Zealanders shouldn't be taken advantage of, or shouldn't be manipulated, or shouldn't be coerced into ending their own lives.

Richard: Well let's have a look at those safeguards, well I mean there's been a debate for a while about just “euthanasia” per se. But let's look at these safeguards. Because when you look at the safeguard against coercion for example, you see that this is just going to give the green light to Granny abuse. Because you see what happens is, that entire burden for detecting coercion falls on one doctor who may not even know the patient, who may not have ever met them before, and all that doctor has to do is to, “do their best” to detect coercion. And in doing their best they can only talk to members of the person's family that they allow them to talk to. Now the New Zealand College of General Practitioners has said, “We're not going to be able to detect coercion in these people. There will be wrongful deaths.” So we just say that’s unacceptable.

Jack: However it is a low bar, one of the Select Committee recommendations is that if coercion is  suspected at any point, then that person is immediately not able…

Richard: The question is again, how are you going to detect coecion at any point with that test? I mean, even the courts in the United Kingdom have found that even a judicial enquiry into the detection of the coercion into any one person is very, very difficult to do. But David Seymour expects one doctor in New Zealand to do in just a few days what an entire judicial system can't achieve in weeks. And I think that that's unacceptable.

Jack: To be clear, does your group oppose euthanasia in all forms?

Richard: No.

Jack: So what changes would you make to this Bill for it to be sufficient in your eyes?

Richard: No, this Bill is fatally flawed. It is not fit for purpose. And this Bill should be put out of its misery.

Jack: Okay, so what should legal euthanasia look like in your eyes.

Richard: Well I have yet to see, and as a group we have yet to see, a law, a euthanasia law, anywhere in the world, that achieves its purpose, and that is safe. Because in every country where it's been legalised, we've seen three things: 1) We've seen an increase in the numbers. 2) We've seen an expansion of the criteria or proposed expansion. 3) And we've seen abuse. And this is the problem, that this Bill is no different, in fact in many cases, and many parts of it, are worse.

Jack: It sounds, when you say that, like you oppose euthanasia flat out?

Richard: No, we’re lawyers, and we examine laws. And we've looked at the laws in every country that has legalised it, and we've looked at this law very, very carefully. And you cannot deny that every jurisdiction that has seen euthanasia legalised, has not seen abuse? That's a fact of life. It's incontrovertible.

Jack: Richard McLeod from Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders, thank you very much for your time. We will put some of your questions to Act leader David Seymour who has of course sponsored that Bill.

Jack (continued): Parliament has received 38,000 submissions on David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill. 90% of those oppose the Bill, but despite that opposition and the vibe at Select Committee, Act leader David Seymour is confident it will pass through parliament. He is with us this morning. Kia ora, thanks for being with us. You heard the interview before the break with Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders; a new group that opposes your bill. What do you say to their concerns?

David Seymour:
Well first of all can I just say I wouldn't say I'm confident – it's going to take a lot of work to get MPs to side with the majority of New Zealanders. 70% in most polls who do want choice in this area. But just to go back to your interview you’ve just heard, frankly I don't know where you find these people. He said that the Select Committee report says that the Bill is a unworkable, well it does use the word unworkable, it said the Bill in its current form is unworkable – that's why we made changes so that it is workable. I thought lawyers were supposed to read? And secondly he says that the courts have found that you can't detect coercion, well the Supreme Court of Canada which made the ruling which led to Canada legalising, said actually you can. And that's the consensus around the world. You've now got 150 million people living in jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal. There is no evidence after extensive research in all those countries which has found that coercion is an issue.

So we're going to see a campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. All the extreme language that you just heard, I would rather focus on the fact. And another fact that your previous interviewee seems to have missed, is that actually it's not one doctor, it's two doctors. So you think through what would actually have to happen, well first of all, you’d have two doctors that thought you had, or were prepared to say on their professional reputation that you had a terminal illness likely to end your life, within six months.

So the idea that Granny is going to be abused and dragged out of home, or somehow euthanised because somebody didn't like her, I mean give me a break! You'd have to be somebody who was very ill, you'd have to ask the doctor, the doctor would have to examine you, they’d have to be confident that it was your choice, and then, and only then, you get referred to a second doctor who goes through the whole process again.

So look, I'm a little bit angry as you can probably tell. I’m happy to debate people on the facts, but to have people saying that they’re lawyers – who clearly haven't read any of the important documentation – who then come and say things with the kind of extreme language that you've just heard, is not helpful to the debate. And if we end up with this Bill failing, and New Zealanders who are at the end of their life, who do what choice, who are suffering, have to keep suffering because some people have gone and put about that sort of misinformation, I think would be a real shame. I'm committed to getting this Bill passed by my Parliamentary colleagues so New Zealanders who want choice can have it.

Jack: The group says they're not fundamentally opposed to euthanasia, however they couldn't cite to me in that interview how an euthanasia BIll that would be acceptable at this stage. Going back to the coercion issue, because I think that is an issue that concerns a lot of New Zealanders, is there not a risk that some people who are near the end of their life, who might be vilnerable social position, could not be coerced by those who are supposed to be close to them?

David: I think what's important, I mean theoretically yes. Undetectable coercion is the easiest argument in the world to make and impossible to disprove. And that's why they make that argument. But actually we do have good evidence where we’ve looked around the world at people who use assisted dying laws, and it's not people who are vulnerable, who don't have access to health insurance, palliative care, and so on – it's overwhelmingly people who actually have greater access to all of those things, people who are more used to make choices and being assertive throughout their life. It is a choice that people make.

Now if what your previous interviewee said was true, that when you an pass assisted dying law, it's all the people who are vulnerable and the people who aren't used to making choices, and don't have resources, and have run out of money or health-care funding or whatever – start using assisted dying as an alternative, I wouldn't be doing this. But I am doing this because I've looked at the evidence around the world and what it tells us is that assisted dying is a choice that people take when they know that their death is not going to be pleasant,  in spite of the best palliative care, and for some people I’m sorry that it doesn't work, those people should have choice – and I don't see why we should deny it to them based on information that is simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Jack: What will you have to do to get this to pass?

David: I need to persuade at a minimum of 61 to make a majority out of 120 of Parliamentary colleagues to vote for the Bill. There’s three votes on a piece of legislation. The first time it was 76 to 44, so that was quite a healthy margin.

But we're going to have to persuade MPs that if you look at the evidence from overseas, how the Bill actually works, read it properly, then you can see that this is a very good Bill. I might add that the Attorney General and Crown Law, that advise the government on law, have said that it is a Bill that is consistent with the Human Rights Act because it does give people choice and protect those who don't want it. I need to give those kinds of arguments to my fellow MPs. Along with the fact that 70-75% depending on the poll, of New Zealanders who have seen bad deaths, who want choice, support this Bill.

I think if I can persuade my Parliamentary colleagues of that, then I am quietly confident that we will pass it. However as you've just seen, it's easy for people who claim to be authoritative to say things that don't stand up to any scrutiny once you start reading, and spook people out of voting for it. So it's going to be a big battle.

And I hope that people watching who do support choice will contact their MP and just remind those MPs, that’s lot of New Zealanders out there who do see how this works, who do want choice, who do think it's compassionate, and what their MP to vote for this Bill.

Jack: Thank you for this time this morning. We appreciate it. Act party leader David Seymour.

Richard McLeod is the Principal of McLeod & Associates, where he specialises in human rights, immigration and refugee law. Richard joins #DefendNZ because he is deeply concerned about the legal deficiencies within the End of Life Choice Bill. Looking to overseas experience, he worries that the already vague and loose criteria within the Bill would expand even further in practice should the Bill pass, exposing more people to euthanasia and assisted suicide. Richard speaks out in documentaries #DefendNZ have launched this year around the Bill including ‘A deadly double standard’ featuring Claire Freeman and ‘Terminal but not dead yet’ featuring Vicki Walsh and ‘A life in chronic pain’ featuring Dr John Fox (below).

Dr Huhana Hickey MNZM (Ngāti Tahinga, Tainui, Ngai Tai) is a Crown Director and consultant. She is a scholar of disabilities research and legal theory, and has research interests in the human rights of people from marginal backgrounds and the consequences of discrimination and social oppression. Huhana sits on the New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal and is Chair of the Auckland Council Disability Strategic Advisory Panel. Huhana takes part in the #DefendNZ movement out of a concern that societies’ prejudices about disability and the deficiency of support currently available for people with disabilities could have a deadly effect should the End of Life Choice Bill be passed. She speaks in documentaries #DefendNZ have launched this year around the Bill including ‘Choice is a relative term’ featuring Kylee Black (below).

Watch Kylee’s documentary in widescreen and read her complete story here.

Watch Claire’s documentary in widescreen and read her complete story here.

Watch John’s documentary in widescreen and read his complete story here.

Watch Vickis’s documentary in widescreen and read her complete story here.

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