A ‘license to kill’? Tracing the line between life and death

ACT leader David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill passed its first reading on Wednesday, the 13th of December. 76 members of parliament voted in favour of the bill, with 44 against.

The bill will legalise voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, but contains many safeguards.

The person requesting end of life choice must be over 18 years of age. This is to ensure that only adults would be medically and legally able to end their lives if they meet the requirements of the other safeguards.

The person must be a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident. Going on vacation to New Zealand for the purpose of getting this medical treatment will not be allowed in this bill. People who do so will be refused treatment.

The person must suffer from: a terminal illness that is likely to end their life within 6 months OR a grievous and irremediable medical condition. This safeguard is to ensure that only people with certain serious conditions will be allowed this choice. “Grievous” is defined as a very severe illness, which will be assessed by a doctor. People with depression will not be granted end of life choice as their condition will not end their lives within 6 months or less, and isn’t irremediable. Some MPs have linked the bill to youth suicide but with this safeguard and the first one in place, young people wanting to commit suicide because of depression or anxiety would not be granted the choice.

The person must be in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability. This essentially means that the condition of the person requesting end of life choice must be worsening exponentially. An irreversible decline can be in the forms of lost ability to live a full life, mobility issues, loss of senses, and being unable to eat, drink, or speak. Many people from the disability community and sector have issues with this bill. With this safeguard, many disabled people would not be granted end of life choice as their condition rarely worsens and often stays at the same level.

The person must experience unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a tolerable way. Most of the time, when one is ill, they can have medication to relieve their pain, or take painkillers. This safeguard is to make sure that the suffering experienced by the person requesting end of life choice cannot be cured. An example is an extreme pain that cannot be controlled by painkillers.

The person must have the ability to understand the consequences of assisted dying. This safeguard is put in place to ensure that the person requesting assisted dying has the capacity to understand what this decision fully means. This also means that people with mental disability would not be eligible for end of life choice. Saying “when I get to a certain medical state, I would like my life to be ended” will not be upheld in the end of life choice bill as the patient must choose during a time of suffering.

In addition to this, two doctors must agree with the patient to give them access to assisted dying, as well as a psychologist’s examination of their mental capability.

Some MPs are against this bill because they believe friends and family may convince a person into ending their own life with this bill. The coercion cannot be stopped, but at the end of the day it is ultimately the patient’s choice of whether they access assisted dying or not.

It is described as “a licence to kill” and “a very bad piece of legislation” by senior members of the National Party, but Seymour thinks the bill has the numbers to pass until it becomes law.

It is up to a conscience vote, so MPs can vote however they like, instead of following the party line and voting as a block. Some MPs from National spoke against such as Simon O’Connor and leader Bill English, and some voted for such as Chris Bishop.

Many MPs have said that they’d vote in favour of the first reading of the bill, so that it can go to select committee where the public can make submissions on what they think of the bill. The bill is currently in that stage. The bill can be tweaked in select committee and it is an important part of our democracy. MPs who have voted to take the bill to select committee have said that they will decide after the changes to the bill if voting in favour is worth it.

A 2016 poll by Reid Research shows that around two-thirds of people in New Zealand support assisted dying, so we’ll just have to wait and see if two-thirds of the New Zealand Parliament do as well, after 9 months of submissions from the public.

9 months is significantly longer than the usual amount given for submissions, but Parliament certainly acknowledges the importance of this bill and that there are many viewpoints on it.

Over to you.