General Debate – End of Life Choice

Mon, 04 May, 2015

Mr Speaker,

Martin Hames was sick and knew he would get sicker.  He took his own life alone, not wanting to implicate anybody else in his death.  He did it much earlier than he would have liked, because he knew the advancing condition of his Huntington’s disease would prevent him from later taking such an action.

People like Martin who find themselves ill and beyond the help of palliative care have, in the words of Canada’s Supreme Court, two options:  they can take their own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or they can suffer until they die from natural causes. The choice is cruel.

And this cruel choice is all too real for New Zealanders.  Palliative care is advanced, but as the High Court admitted last year, unfortunately it doesn’t work for everybody.  And sadly, ten percent of suicides by elderly New Zealanders are by those with terminal illnesses.

There needs to be a more compassionate option.  It is time for Parliament to debate and vote on assisted dying legislation.

The democratic mandate for Parliament to do this is huge.  In a Colmar Brunton poll last year, 75% supported assisted dying legalisation.  There are few issues of our time that three quarters of New Zealanders support, yet this is the case with assisted dying.

Last year, close to 9,000 people signed a petition leading to a Parliamentary inquiry on the issue. I hope the inquiry will produce a high-quality report clarifying the issue for New Zealand, but it can’t introduce a bill for Parliament to debate or vote on.

There is, however, currently a bill in Parliament’s ballot.  My End of Life Choice Bill is targeted towards cases of highest need and includes strong safeguards.  It gives people with terminal illnesses a compassionate option.

To be clear, a law change will not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering.  Evidence from Europe found that on average an assisted death shortened someone’s life by just ten days.

Crucially, assisted dying is already happening, but in a less safeguarded way.  Auckland med school researchers found that 4.5% of New Zealand GPs indicated their most recent dying patient from a drug administered explicitly to hasten death.

The End of Life Choice Bill would instead put the patient in charge, allowing them to make a safer choice under the protection of the law.

For many, the strength of potential safeguards will be the deciding factor in supporting change.  While the issues are complex, I refuse to believe agreeing on a sensible set of safeguards is “too hard” for a functional, mature Parliament like ours.

I understand there are Parliamentarians who oppose assisted dying no matter what.  I do not demand their support for the End of Life Choice Bill.  All I ask is for the chance of a debate, and a vote.

In the Lecretia Seales case, the High Court said leaving the choice to the courts would be “trespassing on the role of Parliament and departing from the constitutional role of judges in New Zealand.”  It’s not that the judge disagreed with Lecretia – it’s just that it’s Parliament’s job, our job, to lead the debate.

The time has come for us to do our job.  To continue avoiding this debate would be a disservice to the people we represent.

New Zealanders deserve a Parliament unafraid to confront an issue that is, on a legal, moral, and democratic level, critically important.

I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker.

I seek leave to introduce my End of Life Choice Bill, to be debated as members’ order of the day number one on the first members’ day after the Health Select Committee reports back to the house on its inquiry into the petition of Maryan Street and 8,974 others.

[There is objection.]