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Euthanasia bill needs to wait

The InterChurch Bioethics Council is asking Parliament to halt deliberations on MP David Seymour’s ‘End-of-Life-Choice’ Bill until after this year’s election.
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Taonga News  |  19 Jun 2017

The InterChurch Bioethics Council (ICBC) wants New Zealanders to take time to engage in a broad and fair debate on end-of-life questions, before Parliament considers MP David Seymour's recently-drawn member's bill.

“We consider it untenable for Parliament to consider this new Bill when the Health Select Committee on Maryan Street’s Medically Assisted Dying petition has not yet run its course.” said ICBC Co-Chair Rev Dr Graham O’Brien today.

“In May this year, independent research from the Care Alliance uncovered more than 16,000 submissions to the Health Select Committee that opposed law change to allow assisted suicide. That equals 77% of all submissions arguing against assisted suicide or euthanasia.”

That Health Select Committee process on medically-assisted dying began in February 2016, receiving an unprecedented number of more than 21,000 written and oral submissions. The Select Committee report is due at the end of June 2017. 

“We believe it is important not to act in haste on this important and nuanced issue.” said Graham O’Brien today.

“We think it will not serve the best interests of New Zealanders to make this highly emotive subject an election issue by picking it up at this time.”

David Seymour’s ‘End-of-Life-Choice’ Bill was drafted in 2015, but was preceded by pro-euthanasia bills from Michael Laws (1995), Peter Brown (2003) and Maryan Street (2012).

In a statement released last week, the InterChurch Bioethics Council maintains there are major public safety concerns in the ‘End-of-Life-Choice Bill’.

The ICBC’s first concern is that the Bill does not clearly determine grounds for authorising assisted suicides.

The Bill enables medically-assisted suicide to be granted for persons with terminal illness who are 18 years or older. Its qualifying conditions, however, include: a grievous and irremediable condition, an advanced state of irreversible decline, or unbearable suffering (unable to be relieved). In short, the grounds for assisted suicide are a painful life being lived in a manner the person considers intolerable. 

If “unbearable suffering” is self-determined, say the ICBC, this leaves room for assisted suicides in conditions not defined by doctors as ‘terminal’.

According to the ICBC’s mental health experts, many people who experience their condition as hopeless do so when suffering depression – a potentially treatable condition.

According to the ICBC, depression is frequently not recognised by medical practitioners who have had little training or experience in psychological medicine, and who do not know the patient.

This means that the Bill allows for assisted suicide based on the self-perception of vulnerable people whose condition may be treatable.

The ICBC notes that David Seymour’s proposed bill includes a ‘two doctor safeguard’ to ensure there is no coercion involved in assisted suicide requests.

They note too, that evidence collected in the US state of Oregon shows that even where two medical practitioners agree on each case, this does not act as an effective safeguard.

Oregon health researchers have found that many times neither of the confirming doctors know the patient well enough to determine if depression is a factor, or if coercion is taking place. This is especially important given New Zealand’s high level of elder abuse.

Another important issue to consider, says the ICBC, is the law change’s potential to normalise suicide in our society, when Aotearoa New Zealand already has a high youth suicide rate.  Legalising assisted suicide sends a mixed message that suicide is a good option for some, but a tragedy for others.

Finally, the ICBC challenges New Zealanders to consider why the public conversation on euthanasia appears as an almost mono-cultural Pakeha debate.

ICBC’s Māori and Pacific members and advisers have pointed out that neither physician-assisted suicide nor euthanasia have equivalents in Polynesian languages or cultural practice.

They have warned that ‘no comment’ from Māori and Pacific people does not equal consent, as many have whanau-based approaches to dealing with death and dying, and consider assisted-suicide an unnatural conversation to discuss or contemplate.

ICBC challenge the wisdom of acting in haste on this issue, when the majority of voices in this debate assume a “secular western worldview” as normative for all New Zealanders.

View the ICBC’s written submission to the Health Select Committee