It is about one year ago that Lecretia Seales took her case for euthanasia and assisted suicide to the High Court in Wellington. One of the declarations she sought was whether her particular situation and circumstances (having a progressive advanced incurable illness)
could be seen to fall outside the long-standing laws against assisting suicide and against homicide.
Justice David Collins, the judge who ruled on the case, was clear that the law would regard any such acts as illegal. He then concluded that it was only for Parliament to consider any such changes.
In June 2015, a matter of weeks after the conclusion of the High Court case, former List MP Maryan Street presented a petition to Parliament on behalf of the Voluntary Euthanasia
Society of New Zealand. That petition was subsequently forwarded to the Health Select Committee, which duly called for public submissions on the matter.
To complicate matters further, in October ACT Party MP David Seymour decided to put his own Private Members Bill into the ballot, calling for euthanasia and assisted suicide.
That Bill could be drawn at any time irrespective of where the select committee investigation is at. The provisions in Mr Seymour’s Bill would make “assisted dying” available to anyone
over 18 years of age on the basis of “unbearable suffering unable to be relieved in a manner the person considers tolerable” — virtually assisted suicide/euthanasia on demand.
To date, no official reports have come from either the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives (who receive and process public submissions) or the Health Select Committee. What we know unofficially is that more than 15,000 New Zealand individuals, experts and organisations, an unprecedented number for a petition such as this and far exceeding the expectations of everyone, including the Office of the Clerk, which is still processing submissions more than three months after the close off date of February 1.
What happens next is the Health Select Committee will arrange for those who want to appear in person to speak to their submission. This will take some months as the committee has a limited number of hours and is also dealing with other business. All in all, it is not unreasonable to conclude that it won’t be able to deliver its report until sometime in 2017.
In the meantime it is possible that MP Seymour’s Bill could be pulled from the Private Members Ballot. If this were to happen before the committee had released its report, Parliament would find itself in a unique situation — having to debate the desirability of a euthanasia and assisted suicide law before the results of a significant investigation on the issue could be presented.
Should that happen, my view is that MPs should vote Seymour’s bill down at the first opportunity. The considered information and views of 15,000 New Zealanders should not be ignored — people’s contributions, both for and against change, must inform any future parliamentary debate about this complex issue.
In the meantime, yet another major Court in the United States has ruled that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide.
In a judgment issued on May 3, a New York Court drew attention to “the risks that could be presented to the elderly, poor, socially disadvantaged, and those without access to good medical care; and the role of treatable symptoms such as pain and depression in creating a desire for lethal medications”.
It also noted that “most doctors lack a sufficiently close relationship to their patients to appropriately evaluate a request for help in ending life, and expressed the concern that it could open the door to euthanasia of those incapable of giving consent”.
This ruling adds to a long list of jurisdictions around the world that have rejected law changes in recent months.
Dr John Kleinsman is director of the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre – the Nathaniel Centre.