A New Zealand parliamentary committee has issued a report showing that 80 percent of people submitting their views about euthanasia opposed “assisted dying”. However, the committee has not made any recommendations about legislation since a private members bill has been introduced in parliament and is likely to be dealt with by a conscience vote.

Two years ago, following an unsuccessful bid by a dying woman, Lecretia Seales, to establish her right to doctor assisted suicide, then Labour MP Maryan Street presented a petition signed by nearly 9000 people to parliament. The petition asked that “the House of Representatives investigate fully public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit medically-assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable.”

The Health Committee of the House was given the job of seeking submissions and reporting on the views of New Zealanders. More than 21,000 unique written submissions were received and the committee heard over 900 oral submissions.

Euthanasia-Free NZ has welcomed the report, saying that it seems to be a fairly balanced summary of what the Committee heard from submitters. As the committee itself points out, the submissions process “provided not only a numerical indication of submitters’ sentiments, but also allowed them to explain their position in more detail than could be provided in response to a simple question in a poll.” (p. 15)

In a press release Euthanasia-Free NZ continued:

The report confirms the findings of majority opposition to changing the law by the Every Life Research Unit and the Care Alliance. It states,

“Eighty percent of submitters were opposed to a change in legislation that would allow assisted dying and euthanasia. Submitters primarily argued that the public would be endangered. They cited concern for vulnerable people, such as the elderly and the disabled, those with mental illnesses, and those susceptible to coercion. Others argued that life has an innate value and that introducing assisted dying and euthanasia would explicitly undermine that idea. To do so would suggest that some lives are worth more than others. There were also concerns that, once introduced, eligibility for assisted dying would rapidly expand well beyond what was first intended.” (p.47)

Lack of services

The report suggests that there is much that the Government and society should do to address suffering, without changing the law.

The Committee encourage the Government to investigate improving access to grief counselling.

The Committee was also concerned that “there is a lack of awareness about the role of palliative care, that access to it is unequal, and that there are concerns about the sustainability of the workforce.” (p.42)

“Without everyone having access to health services when they need them, a choice to request euthanasia or assisted suicide would not actually be a free one,” responds Renée Joubert, executive officer of Euthanasia-Free NZ.

The risk of coercion

The Report mentions that,

“Submitters were concerned that individuals could be coerced into assisted dying. Submitters also argued that people with life-limiting illnesses are vulnerable, even if they are well educated and have family support. Several submitters spoke about the fear that family members would put subtle pressure on individuals because they wanted to inherit, or to avoid spending money on care. Many submitters expressed fear that if assisted dying or euthanasia were institutionalised, the disabled, the elderly, and the ill could experience greater social prejudice. We heard various stories from overseas in which members of these groups felt societal pressure to end their life. Submitters were also concerned that the option could evolve into an expectation, and that the right to die would soon be seen as a duty to die.” (p.21)

Safeguards vs eligibility criteria

On page 37 the report states,

“Opponents and supporters of a law change both identified effective safeguards as an important part of any assisted dying legislation. Many of the safeguards proposed were actually eligibility criteria.”

“David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill is an example of a bill that claims to have safeguards, but in reality consists merely of eligibility criteria and a description of a legal process, which cannot prevent, let alone reliably detect, a person being pressured or abused,” says Ms Joubert. 

“When making a formal request for euthanasia a person may claim it as their voluntary decision. However, they may have arrived at that point due to pressure or abuse that has occurred behind closed doors,” says Ms Joubert. “How is a doctor, or any third party for that matter, to prevent or reliably detect what happened over time and in secret?” 

“Assisted dying legislation is simply too risky in a society in which elder and relationship abuse are growing concerns, but remain largely unreported.”

Euthanasia-Free NZ encourages MPs and candidates to read the Committee’s report in full and reject the Seymour Bill at First Reading. 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet