The first vote in Parliament on a bill to legalise voluntary euthanasia is near but National MP Maggie Barry’s description of it as a “licence to kill’ and a disruption at Act leader David Seymour’s campaign launch in support of the bill showed how heated the issue will be.
Seymour, whose bill was drawn from the ballot last term, launched the campaign at Parliament today alongside MPs from other parties, End of Life Choice’s Dr Jack Havill and Matt Vickers, the husband of the late Lecretia Seales.
Seales unsuccessfully took the issue to the High Court after she was diagnosed with a non-operable brain tumour and died in 2015 soon after the High Court ruled it could not grant her wish and said it was up to Parliament to change the law.
The first reading of the End of Life Choice Bill could be held tomorrow night or early next year, and MPs will have a conscience vote on it.
Family First has said it will campaign strongly against the bill.
Seymour’s event at Parliament was disrupted by Dr Russell Franklin, a former paediatrician and GP, who is opposed to the move.
Franklin confronted Dr Havill as MPs spoke to gathered media, saying it was “going back to the era of Nazi Germany” and went against the ethics of the medical profession.
Vickers, on a visit from New York, said Seales would have been delighted to see the legislation arrive at Parliament and urged MPs to support it.
“Obviously when she took the court case her ultimate goal was to get legislative change and this is the mechanism by which that happens. So she’d be very happy to see that this was going ahead.”
Those in support at the launch were Green leader James Shaw, National’s Nikki Kaye and Chris Bishop, and Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway.
No one from New Zealand First was at the event and leader Winston Peters later said his party would support it at first reading but after that support would be conditional on whether a referendum was held on the issue. He believed the public should decide - not 120 MPs.
His own ranks appeared split - MP Shane Jones said “I do not support euthanasia”, but later clarified that did not mean he would not vote for it to be debated at select committee.
Other MPs were divided on the issue.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would support the bill because she believed people should have choice.
“I will always look for safeguards in place to make sure no one is ever manipulated or left vulnerable. But I also support people having their own choice in those circumstances.”
However, National leader Bill English - a Catholic - said he did not support euthanasia and believed Seymour’s bill was worse than others that had come up because it lacked the necessary safeguards.
National MP Maggie Barry was also vehemently opposed, saying it was a “licence to kill.” She said there were no protections for the disabled, the elderly or the vulnerable. “It would make us the most liberal country in the world to die.”
Seymour said that was disingenuous. “If you look at the safeguards we have, you find at any given time 98-99 percent of people don’t have a terminal illness or degenerative condition that qualifies. You have to be in an advanced state of decline.”
Labour’s Dr David Clark said he was yet to decide but was concerned it would be a “slippery slope,” referring to his grandmother who suffered from manic depression and had tried to take her own life.
“I have several concerns – one is broadly about society as a whole and its ability to ensure community is put before the needs of individuals and the way in which we can risk a slippery slope with euthanasia.
"My own grandmother attempted suicide a number of times when I was a child because she felt that she was a burden on society.
"And if anything society has become more atomised since that point in time.”
However, Clark was also aware that for people who were suffering it was a very important cause. “This is not a simple issue and I wouldn’t want to treat it as such.”
End of Life Choice president Maryan Street urged MPs to at least let the bill go to select committee for submissions.
“That way they can find out what it is really about, the safeguards provided in it and the checks and balances to be followed. In those respects, it is similar to legislation in other jurisdictions around the world.”
She said there was strong public support for the move and MPs should consider that when weighing up their decision.
“We want people to have the confidence they have the choice to die well, not badly, at the end of a terminal illness or when they can no longer bear their irremediable condition. We want them to have a choice.”
Labour MP Phil Twyford said he would vote against it and did not support euthanasia.
“I don’t think the case has been made that the system is broken. I think that doctor-assisted suicide and doctor-assisted euthanasia put vulnerable people in our communities in a terrible situation. I just don’t support it.”
National’s Nikki Kaye said for her it was a matter of compassion and she believed it was time New Zealanders had a say on the issue so it should go to select committee. However, it was important to be respectful of others’ views and other MPs might oppose it on ethical or religious grounds.
New National MP Simeon Brown said it was the worst piece of euthanasia legislation he had seen and had no safeguards so he would not be supporting it.
Labour’s Greg O’Connor said he was in favour of individual choice but wanted to be certain that the bill would ensure it delivered that choice.
“When it comes down to a decision by an individual, with these things you always put yourself in the spot of ‘what if it was me?' And if it was me and a decision about me, a well-informed individual, generally my view is that the individual should have the choice.”
Labour's Grant Robertson said he would support it at least at first reading, saying it was an important issue for New Zealand to debate and discuss.
MPs Megan Woods and Michael Wood were also supporting it to select committee and would decide whether to support it further after that.
Seymour believes he has enough support to send the bill to a select committee for public and expert submissions.
Seales’ lawyers from Russell McVeagh will hold a briefing for MPs on the matter tonight.
- By Claire Trevett