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13 April, 2019
Simon Shepherd: The euthanasia debate is gaining momentum as the End of Life Choice Bill approaches its second reading in Parliament next month. The author of the controversial Bill – Act MP David Seymour – is planning three changes including limiting it to those with a terminal illness – but will they be enough to sway its opponents? David joins me now, along with Peter Thirkell from anti-euthanasia group Care Alliance. Thanks for your time this morning. To you first, David Seymour. The Justice Select Committee process had nearly 40,000 submissions. Do you accept there are flaws in your Bill?
David Seymour: No, I don’t. You know, the Bill was examined by the Select Committee. They’ve come back with a number of minor and technical changes to make sure that the way that it’s written aligns with its intention, and that’s what should happen. That’s why we send Bills to Select Committees, and I’m very pleased.
Simon: Yeah, but surely, there are flaws, because you’re proposing changes to them?
David: No. Just because you want to make something better doesn’t mean that it’s flawed. I think the major change that’s occurred and the major change that I’m now proposing is that it’s become clear from listening to people, including the public and also my fellow members of Parliament, that there is not support for a Bill that is for people who don’t have the terminal prognosis within six months. So that’s an easy fix. That was already one of the criteria — was people who are terminal within six months would be able to access the Bill if they so choose. We simply narrow it and make it only that, and that’s the law-making process. That’s listening, that’s changing, that’s improving, and that’s getting a Bill passed that everybody’s happy with.
Simon: So, Peter, how do you feel about those changes that are being proposed?
Peter Thirkell: Well, the Bill that’s going to the parliament for the second reading is in fact in its present form. So David has indicated some changes he has in mind, but that’s all they are. The present Bill is the present Bill. And as you alluded to, 40,000 New Zealanders wrote in expressing concerns. A lot of expert evidence. Ninety per cent of the submissions were opposed. But importantly, within that, there were sub-groups like doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals — groups, peak medical organisations and such. So a lot of expert evidence, and there isn’t one sub-group constituency within the submissions that supports this Bill.
Simon: What I would say to that figure of 40,000 and your analysis saying 90 per cent was against the Bill is that outside of the select committee process, there’s been a lot of polls which seem to indicate that the public is in favour of some form of assisted dying.
Peter: Well, polls are fairly whimsical things. They tend to be single-question things. They’re usually framed in a way— They use soft language like ‘assisted dying’, ‘with the approval and assistance of the doctor’, and, you know, ‘given certain safeguards’. That really doesn’t carry the weight of expert evidence. There were 54,000 pages of evidence that went to the select committee. Over 600 doctors wrote in, and 93% of them were opposed; 800 nurses, 93% opposed. So almost 2000 medical professionals, and % of them were opposed, so these are the experts that are speaking out on the Bill.
Simon: OK. So, David Seymour, what do you say to that?
David: Well, first of all, the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders don’t make submissions to the Select Committee. That’s their choice. It doesn’t mean that their views are less valid. The same with nurses, the same with doctors. And I think Dr Thirkell needs to ask himself, as do most people that oppose this Bill, why it is that over 20 years New Zealanders have consistently said — and this is according to polling companies, such as Reid Research, that Newshub relies on; polling companies that predicted the last election to within one per cent — not that I was happy about that, but they’re good, and they’re accurate — 70%, 75% of New Zealanders consistently say that they want choice in this area, and I would give two-word answer to why that is: Life experience. Because New Zealanders have seen bad deaths, and they’ve said, ‘If my time comes, I’m in a position where palliative care can’t help me,’ – and for some people, that is a reality, as it’s widely accepted – ‘then I want to be able to choose. It’s my life. It’s my right. It’s my choice to be able to choose how I go and when I go, not to suffer, writhing in agony, to satisfy somebody else’s idea of what a good death is.’
Simon: I just want to pick up on something that Peter Thirkell has said about medical professions submitting to the select committee process. One of the issues is that even the medical associations express concern about the reliability of predicting how long someone will live. So they may fall into the eligibility and have a timeframe of six months, and it gets turned on its head. So, I mean, what’s an acceptable level of error there?
David: Well, they’re—
Simon: David first.
David: Can we actually just go back to the fact that this is a choice? It’s your life; it’s your choice; it’s your right. So, yes, it is true that new treatments come along. It is true that people with bad prognoses make miraculous recoveries, and everybody who wants to choose this Bill has to weigh that up. But what is not right is that people who don’t have that kind of fortune have to suffer just in case. This is about a personal choice. It’s not about imposing one person’s morality on everybody else.
Simon: So is that what you’re saying, that Peter’s imposing his morality on everybody else?
David: Well, if you accept that this Bill is safe, and that is the position of the Supreme Court of Canada, it’s—
Peter: That is highly contested.
David: Well, no.
Peter: That is unsafe, based on overseas evidence. People who are vulnerable are at risk.
Simon: OK, gentlemen. Let’s just pause there.
David: Which one of us would you like to answer the question?
Simon: I’d like to ask Peter a question. What about choice, as David is saying?
Peter: Well, choices have consequences, and the harsh consequence of this Bill is that a medical practitioner, a doctor, has to take a lethal injection and put it into a patient and end their life. Although, it is not a choice for the person alone. By definition, it implicates someone else. If you create a moral opportunity for someone to elect to die, then you create a moral duty for someone to actually carry that out. You can’t act alone, and—
David: Well, with the greatest of respect—
Peter: …therein lies the problem.
David: The Bill is incredibly clear. Nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do. If you’re a doctor, and you want nothing to do with this, then you can conscientiously object. Now, I’d just like to come back to the evidence about doctors — the New Zealand Medical Association’s done a survey, almost 40 per cent of doctors are in favour. Two thirds of nurses are in favour.
Peter: Well, I contest that.
David: Well, OK. People can look it up for themselves.
Simon: All right. We’ll let people—
David: That’s what the data is.
Peter: The NZMA says this is an unethical practice, and it will remain unethical even if the law passes. So what the Parliament is at risk of doing is imposing on the medical profession an unethical practice.
David: Well, the Canadian Medical Association has just elected a doctor who is in favour of their legislation.
Peter: We’re talking about New Zealand. There are lots of problems in Canada.
Simon: Can I ask something about Canada? You’ve brought Canada up. Now, Canada — one of the major concerns about enacting this kind of legislation is whether it’s going to be a gateway or a slippery slope to people like minors or people with disabilities or who have a mental illness being able to access this. Now, that’s not allowed under the Bill at the moment, but is that a possibility? That’s one of the concerns, isn’t it, David?
David: Well, no, it’s not. Frankly, it’s one of the weakest arguments that people make.
Simon: But Canada’s looking at that right now.
Peter: There are over 2,000 submissions…
David: When the Canadians passed their law, they passed a law that said, ‘In a couple of years, Parliament must review the law.’ My Bill does the same thing. That’s right, and that’s democratic. You’ve now got people submitting and saying, ‘Well, maybe it should change this way, maybe it should change that.’
Simon: So that’s a possibility.
David: But to say because somebody in Canada has raised the possibility is a bit like a Canadian saying, ‘Well, I’ve read the ACT Party website, and New Zealand’s about to get a flat tax.’ The fact that some Canadian says it doesn’t mean that Canada’s going to do it.
Simon: It sounds like, Peter, you say that more than just ‘somebody says it’. You say it’s overwhelming. Is it?
Peter: Yeah, well, just on this issue alone, there were over 2,000 submissions from those who were opposed, and we had Dr Leonie Hertz out last week — a palliative care physician from Canada on the ground. She says we paint a rosy picture. It was the same in Canada two and a half years ago, but actually the ground has shifted. It’s become normalised. They are already talking about broadening the criteria. It is simply unstoppable, and she says it’s not actually a slippery slope — it is a logical progression. You open the door, you let the genie out of the bottle, you can’t complain.
David: I’m not sure that one avowedly spiritually-motivated Canadian doctor speaks for the country, but there you go.
Simon: Okay, and one last quick question, Peter, even if this Bill’s not successful, the fact that it’s got this far, does it indicate a public shift on this issue?
Peter: No, I think, again, I come back to the submissions. It’s all very well to talk about polls, they’re whimsical, they’re not informed.
Peter: There’s a huge amount of expert evidence and evidence from the public saying please don’t do this. It puts vulnerable people at risk, it disrupts the doctor/patient relationship and requires them to participate in a system that would be unethical. The overseas experience certainly is not reassuring.
David: Well, Simon, if I can come in on that. Simon—
Peter: And palliative care is another alternative, we’d be much better to put our energies into that life-affirming—
David: Simon, it’s widely accepted that palliative care is great, but it does not work for everyone. There are many countries that have considered these laws, and they have not voted them in...
Peter: It’s not widely accepted.
David: …because the lawmakers were spooked and fear mongered by the kind of arguments we’ve heard this morning.
Peter: It’s not fear mongering, it’s evidence.
David: But of those countries that have put an assisted dying law in place, none of them have gone back. And that tells you the reality is far better than the rhetoric you hear.
Simon: Well, we’re going to continue this debate as the Bill goes towards its second reading. David Seymour, thank you for your time, Peter Thirkell, thank you.
David: Thank you.
Peter: Thank you, Simon, appreciate it.