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RNZ: "Concerns and Contradictions" in the Euthanasia Bill - Alex Penk interviewed by Karyn Hay

Lately: Karyn Hay with Alex Penk.

The Maxim Institute's CEO Alex Penk thinks that the Justice Select Committee's report into the End of Life Choice Bill which was released highlights a broad range of issues and questions that MPs will need to grapple with as they decide how to vote.

The following is an extract from the interview:

Karyn Hay: Now the ACT leader David Seymour is urging MPs to look at the evidence before making up their minds about his euthanasia legislation.  The Maxim Institute is an independent research and public policy thinktank, and their CEO Alex Penk says the Justice Committee’s report leaves the Bill in a form that almost nobody supports, not even David Seymour himself.  Alex joins me now.

Good evening, Alex.

Alex Penk: Kia ora, Karen.

Karyn: Kia ora.  You have some very firm thoughts on this Bill if it goes ahead.

Alex: Yeah, well, we’re not the only ones, I guess.  A number of people have fairly firm thoughts on this, but as you said in your intro, interestingly those firm thoughts include really nobody supporting the Bill in the form that it’s currently in.  So the sponsor David Seymour has indicated that he’s intending to put forward a number of changes to the Bill, but I think that puts MPs in quite a tricky position.  In fact, I’d say that the Select Committee’s really thrown this back into Parliament’s lap, because what the Select Committee has said is, ‘Hey, we actually can’t decide most of the substantial policy issues.  We’re going to let MPs decide them themselves, on an individual basis.’

I think that’s going to see us having a fairly messy debate, without really much certainty about what sort of Bill might emerge at the end of that.  And there are some real risks in that kind of process.

Karyn: Such as?

Alex: Well, I think one of the big risks is that you end up with a very patchwork piece of legislation if you go down that track.  So, for example, David Seymour has said that ‘I’ll introduce an amendment so that the Bill will only apply to people with terminal illnesses’.  There’s a current provision in the Bill that’s about terminal illnesses, and it says if you have a terminal illness and you’re likely to die from that terminal illness within six months you will be eligible for euthanasia or assisted suicide.  But elsewhere David Seymour has said that he would include a provision saying that if you have a neurodegenerative disease likely to kill you within 12 months, that should be brought into the Bill as well.  So at the moment it’s really quite unclear what shape the Bill might take.  And you can imagine a situation where you’ve got MPs with a range of perspectives, a range of agendas, bringing amendments to the floor of Parliament to vote on and we could actually end up with a lot of really conflicting, contradictory provisions at play.  You’ve also got the different parties with their agendas.  So NZ First, for example, has said, ‘Hey, this Bill should be subject to a referendum’.  The Greens have a policy that’s on terminal illness but it doesn’t go wider than that.  So it’s really very unclear what kind of a Bill we might get out of this, if we ever get to that stage.  We’re facing a Second Reading at the moment; the stage where MPs would vote on further amendments actually comes after that.  So at the moment MPs are being asked to vote on a Bill that’s basically the version that nobody supports.

Karyn: So, this version, is it based on legislation anywhere else in the world?

Alex: Yeah, I mean there are aspects of it that have been drawn from different jurisdictions around the world, and so … I agree with David Seymour when he says that we should be looking at what’s happening overseas; we should look at the evidence from overseas when we weigh up this Bill, and how we, or MPs, might vote on it.  The thing is, when you look at that evidence, what it actually shows us is that even if somehow all the stars align and we end up with a Bill, at the end of all the amendments, which is coherent, which is workable, and which is much narrower than what the Bill is now, even that narrow version of the Bill would still pose risk of wrongful death.  And we know this because we can see this happening overseas.  And when I say wrongful death what I mean is deaths resulting outside the criteria that are established in the Bill itself.  So, to give you an example, Oregon has an assisted suicide law, they’ve had it in place for 20 years, 21 years actually; they collect really good data; we can see over time a steady rise in the number of people who are saying ‘one of the reasons I chose assisted suicide was because I feared being a burden to other people’.  Now, for this Bill which is supposed to be based on the ideal of free and informed consent, that is a real concern.  People choosing assisted suicide because they feel like they are a burden – really, that’s not very consistent with the idea of autonomous people making their own decisions.

Karyn: Have Oregon done anything about that?

Alex: No, I mean, that’s just the reason that people give.  People also say – a much smaller number of people – but they also say things like, ‘One of the reasons I chose assisted suicide was because of the financial implications of treatment’. So what they’re doing is, they’re recording the reasons that people are giving and … I assume I’m on safe ground in saying we would all be horrified if we found that people were choosing euthanasia or assisted suicide for financial reasons.  The data from Oregon illustrate it could happen.

Karyn: I’m just unclear as to why they haven’t changed their legislation if they have that information.  Or do they accept that?

Alex: Well, basically it’s accepted because it’s consistent with the logic that people should be able to choose assisted suicide if it’s available, and that …

Karyn: For whatever reason … I see, right

Alex: For whatever reason.  And that’s the fundamental idea of this Bill: people should have a free choice; they should have the ability to make this choice for their own reasons, if that’s what they want to do.  And so I think MPs are really going to have to ask themselves: Is that the position that I want to stand with?  Or do I really see myself as standing out of concern for solidarity with people who are in a vulnerable position: people who are facing the end of life, people with disabilities who are really concerned about this Bill?

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