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RNZ: Lawyers plan to challenge euthanasia legislation 'if we need to'

A group of 75 lawyers says it may have to take legal action to stop the End of Life Choice Bill, because it's loose criteria leaves vulnerable people open to coercion. Lisa Owen interviews spokesperson for Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders, Dr Huhana Hickey.

Lisa Owen:
A group of lawyers says it may have to take legal action to stop the End of Life Choice Bill, saying it's loose criteria leaves vulnerable people open to coercion. Lawyers for Vulnerable New Zealanders says there's no guarantee the proposed law will only apply to terminally ill people. It’s spokesperson, Doctor Huhana Hickey, is a legal academic and has multiple sclerosis. She says the  group that launched today is concerned for the elderly, the lonely and especially Māori.

Dr Huhana Hickey:
Many disabled Māori are a part of the problem where they’re trying to access health care but offering cannot, due to the institutionalized racism we experience. You're putting poor people, people at risk, into a position where they may end up having no choice other than to choose euthanasia because PHARMAC refused to fund their drugs.  Others refused to give them care and we have a very underfunded palliative care system. Those are the people we've got a problem with. There are three aspects of this bill which are a big problem for us and that is; coercion, coverup and criteria. Those are the three areas that we have identified as being problematic in this bill. 

Lisa: Well let's address some of those points because David Seymour says that this bill ultimately will only be available to those people who are terminally ill, who have six months or less to live. That they are removing the clause that refers to deteriorating conditions. Irremedial medical conditions and grievous medical conditions he says that's going.

Dr Huhana:  Well first up, the Select Committee have said they cannot come to an agreement on this bill, which means it's problematic. They have not agreed to any changes, they have not agreed to make those provisions that is identified.  

Lisa: So you don't trust his word on that? 

Dr Huhana: No I don't! David Seymour's own record I don't trust his word on much these days and I mean he says one thing and then goes and does another. But he has never addressed the issue around underfunding of palliative care. He's never addressed the issue around racism within the house sector. He’s never addressed the issue around disabled trying to access health care. So if he's not addressing the issue of those of us who are trying to live with quality of life, then how do we know he's going to safely address the issue of us dying.

Lisa: On the issue of disabled people some submitted in this process and said they should be included in this because they're quite capable of making their own decisions for themselves. 

Dr Huhana: Some are but that’s the problem, this bill is catered for those who are confident, who are articulate, who are able to understand exactly what the issues are. Many of the disabled do not want to end up dying, they want to live with dignity before they have that choice. They are not given the choice to live in dignity because we're severely underfunded and can not access health care. I'm part of the discrimination living in Counties Manukau where I can't get the procedures I need to get within a timely fashion at Auckland Hospital. So it's a problem that we've got is,what is choice? If it is free choice, how free is that choice if people are just doing it because they can't access what they need to, in the life that they've got.

Lisa: So what do you and this group of lawyers plan to do, what happens now?

Dr Huhana: We will take legal challenges if we need to, so it all comes down to the second reading and to see where it goes from there. But there's also around Māori and the rights of Māori under the treaty, article three of the Treaty of Waitangi and that potentially becomes a treaty claim, so we could be looking at legal challenges for a number of years.

Lisa: So when you say Waitangi claim, would you take one on the basis that discriminates further against vulnerable Māori, would that be the basis and in terms of other legal challenges?

Dr Huhana: I haven't explored it personally myself much further but there are legal challenges internationally and we will probably be following. And part of that problem we've got again, is if you limit the criteria to one group, exclude others under our human rights law, we can't give that type of disparity. So there's going to be a problem where some disabled are going to say I want the right to die and they're going to come on board and say that I'm not terminal. And what's happened internationally is you've got people with depression, diabetes, already being euthanized. You've got people who just say I'm old.

Lisa: I'm just going to need to ask you for clarification there Dr. Hickey because I did hear those list of conditions, like for example diabetes, has someone seriously been euthanized who has diabetes and that being the primary reason for them being allowed to kill themselves?

Dr Huhana: Belgium, yes. You don't need that reason, you only need to be old. You only need to be a child these days. There's also Canada is currently looking at mature minors and not informing families until after they've been euthanized. You don't need a medical reason to go to Switzerland and end your life.

Lisa: Because David Seymour would say to that, that the opposition to this bill is coming from a small well organized vocal minority and that some of the conditions being listed like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis would never pass the test for this.

Dr Huhana: Let's look at international law, let's look at where they have actually enacted. In Belgium it took twenty two years to include children and non terminal cases, it's already starting to happen in Canada where it's only taken two years and they're now exploring that. So we cannot say that will never happen. There's no such thing as never in legislation, once you let government get involved, once the state is involved, once all of those start to take over, there are changes to the law. It will be extended, there will be guaranteed to be extended because you cannot make it an entrenched piece of law.

Lisa:  Are you a small vocal minority who was flying in the face of the majority?

Dr Huhana: Well I've given that over ninety percent of those submissions were opposed and they're not all religious people, I would say no. But not everyone’s vocal.

Lisa: David Seymore would say that a number of those submissions, were wrote submissions and they were from religious groups, in the large, he would argue.

Dr Huhana: He would because that's his way of trying to dismiss and diminish the reality of what's happening here. There are a lot of nonreligious people that also submitted, I'm one of them. I don't do this based on a religious belief because I don't have one. I do it based purely on human rights and my experience and work with people that are disparate and face huge disparities and vulnerability within our health sector. The disability sector are one of those groups. From within our sector, ironically they haven't all been right. People have all said that they would like the choice one day and it's for things like osteoarthritis, it's not for terminal illness. I've got osteoarthritis. It's a ridiculous thing to want to die over if you've got adequate pain relief, you can get adequate treatment for it. But people are talking about wanting to die because they're not living a good life now.

Lisa: And that's Doctor Huhana Hickey.

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.

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