Some politicians changed the way they previously voted in order to oppose the End of Life Choice Bill at its second reading in Parliament, but the gap between the “Yes” and “No” votes is still problematic, says former Prime Minister Sir William “Bill” English.
Responding to a question at the Forum on the Family held at Manukau on July 5, Sir William said that some MPs changed their minds, and “we have now got a number of months during which more could and should” do so to oppose the bill.
He thought many MPs, in deciding how to vote at the second reading, reflected on their own experiences of witnessing deaths of relatives and the suffering associated with that, and then made a “quiet simplistic jump” to “well, I could use my vote to take that [suffering] away”.
But the issue is far more complex than that, Sir William said, adding that, “we have got to sit back to think of how big a step this would be for our country”.
“If that law passes, we are going to be providing a licence for a particular, designated group of people to kill some others, without the scrutiny that has always applied to taking the life of another person. . . . So, even the proponents of this law know that that is dangerous.”
Sir William said that “in the next few months you are going to hear a lot about Parliament narrowing down the law to try and make it acceptable”.
But this is, in reality, a “foot in the door” strategy, Sir William said. “They just want to get something over the line.”
And that is terribly dangerous, “because the record everywhere and anywhere, is that when, in a community, people are given the right to take lives, the appetite for it becomes a terrible thing. It grows and it grows because of the logical progression from defining that this particular life around these rules can be taken, to the next step which is – well why not the next person who almost meets the criteria?”
Sir William pointed to the example of Canada, where euthanasia and assisted suicide for terminally ill adults have been legal for three years, and where “the biggest children’s hospital has just put out guidelines for euthanasia of what they call mature minors — 14-year-olds down to 12-year-olds”.
“They have started their first discussions on organ donor euthanasia, because if you kill the person, the organs are in much better shape than if you let them die.”
This statement brought forth exclamations of horror from the audience of about 350.
“Well, this is under active discussion,” Sir William said. “This is the seduction of the logical progression.”
He painted a picture of a person who feels that he or she is a burden, “and someone comes to them and says, well, look, not only can you relieve your family or your community of your burden, you could save some other lives. And the person who is not sure will say, yes, actually, that is a good idea, I can donate my corneas and my heart and my lungs. You can just feel the seductiveness of it, can’t you, just in a couple of sentences? And how dangerous is that going to be?People who are already feeling that they have taken too much, are being presented with the opportunity to give back.”
“A logical progression is so seductive, and it doesn’t matter how small the first step is. All the others will follow, “ he said, citing a conversation he had had with a doctor who reviewed euthanasia cases in the Netherlands. That doctor said euthanasia in that country ended up in a place “we never thought it would”.
Also speaking at the forum was Sir William’s wife, Lady Mary English, who is a GP in Wellington.
She told of how she was in the Speaker’s Gallery in Parliament during the second reading debate, alongside four women in wheelchairs.
She saw them flinch when a reference was made in the House to relatives losing mobilisation and how hard it was to expect them to go on with that.
One of the wheelchair-bound women told Dr English that if this bill passes, the guilt she already feels about being a burden will be multiplied.
“These people are people whose lives are a struggle; they are heroic and Parliament and parliamentarians have it in their power, with their one little vote, to either multiply that suffering up enormously — and they can say all they like how it doesn’t pertain to the disabled and they will take out those disabled illnesses from the legislation — it doesn’t matter.
“Because what it does is it changes society’s attitudes. What are you still doing here? Gosh, it is really expensive, you know, that money could be spent on other, really worthy things.”
Dr English said that she did not “believe that euthanasia and assisted suicide can be ethical behavior for GPs.
They are not medical treatments and doctors should not be used to sanitise state-enabled suicide”.
She spoke on the many difficulties that would face doctors should this bill be passed into law, not the least of which would be the threat of being dragged before the Medical Council of New Zealand at some point in the future for refusing to refer a patient to another doctor for euthanasia or assisted suicide.
“David Seymour will say, well you guys aren’t going to be expected to push the syringe, and hook it up and do any of that — so you are fine.
“We are not fine. We will be compelled and coerced to do the referral, to put our patients on that little treadmill to death. And we don’t want to do that and we won’t do it. How they will get us is that the Medical Council will set up the guidelines. There will be complaints . . . you get those people who will be activists who will be out to catch you out — and, in Canada, doctors wake up afraid of whether a patient is going to come and get them today, because that has happened. And these are really good, excellent, caring doctors, so the injustice is enormous.
“So that is how they do it. You get the complaint, you get up before the disciplinary committee.”
Dr English cited other issues pertaining to the doctor-patient relationship that would arise if this bill is passed into law — such as patients not trusting the medications they are prescribed.
“The key thing is that one day, you and I will be sick and vulnerable as we discover what it is that is going to bring about our end,” Dr English said.
“This comes to everybody. We will need to know that our doctors and nurses and society are united in being supportive of us as we become less useful and more expensive in terms of assistance needs and financial costs of care.”
She spoke on the sad, but widespread, occurrence of elder abuse, and, based on her experience working in Porirua for six years, on the implications for suicide prevention programmes — especially those targetted at young people.
“It is both inconsistent and cynical to legally signal that suicide is good for the old, or sick people, but bad for young, distressed people. You get mixed messages,” she said.
Sir William paid tribute to his wife at the start of his talk. “You know, politicians and former politicians have theories, people like Mary actually do the job, with people who are experiencing despair, pain and looking for healing.
“That is why the 1175 doctors who signed up a letter “Doctors say No” can be so influential in this debate,” he said.
He posed a question he had heard his wife pose previously — “how many unintended deaths are we willing to tolerate to allow some choices? You know what the answer is? None”.
“Because as soon as we say it could be some, well whose is it?
“In every other respect, in our society we work very hard to stop that happening,” Sir William said, “and I think that basic sense of New Zealanders’ decency, about protecting the vulnerable, is starting to just get to be part of this debate.
People are taking it seriously and not just seeing it as some matter of choice for a handful of people, they are starting to understand this has broad implications for our whole community.”