When Seales v Attorney General came before the courts in 2015, the evidence was clear cut. There was no evidence of abuse of assisted dying laws in countries that had it. Despite all of the conjecture from opponents that these laws were harmful or led to a slippery slope, the trial judge in the Supreme Court of British Columbia found scant evidence to support those claims were true. When the case moved to the Canadian Supreme Court, a bench of nine supreme court judges upheld that ruling, given that no other reliable evidence had appeared to undermine that decision. As a result of that case, assisted dying became legal in Canada, and has been working without issue since June last year. Less than 0.5% of all deaths in Canada in the last twelve months were assisted.
The Canadian Supreme Court ruling is very persuasive.
Nevertheless, I take opponents’ concerns very seriously. Last year, I visited Dignitas in Switzerland and DMD Colombia, meeting with those that worked in the sphere of assisted dying, to understand how these laws work in practice. What struck me was how high the barriers are to accessing an assisted death. It is far from death on demand, but rather a rigorous and challenging process that requires a person to be extraordinarily determined in order to gain access to assistance. In fact, the evidence shows that individuals who access these laws are almost uniformly independently-minded, resolute, and driven, which were all characteristics that my late wife possessed. As a doctor in Oregon said, “It doesn’t need to be easy, it just needs to be possible.”
That’s a great quote. Not easy, just possible.
Seymour’s bill introduces safeguards that are in fact more stringent than those found in any other jurisdiction in the world, with its system of review and oversight.
The safeguards are key.
It does go further than Oregon in its scope, allowing not only those with a terminal illness to access assisted dying, but also those with a grievous and irremediable medical condition, such as motor neuron disease, spinal stenosis, or Huntington’s disease. It is often sufferers of these diseases who take legal action around assisted dying – such as Kay Carter in Canada and Noel Conway in the United Kingdom. Wellington-based filmmaker Wendell Cooke’s extraordinary mini-documentary Ginaillustrates the plight of individuals in this situation.
As I have blogged an acquaintance with Huntington’s killed himself when relatively young as the only alternative to a future where he has no physical and mental capacity. This bill would have allowed him to live for many more years knowing he could have assistance when he got to the stage he had no physical capacity.
Some Members of Parliament have taken issue with the fact that David’s bill is not restricted to the terminally ill, but the parliamentary process allows for those concerns to be addressed. MPs who are concerned should vote for the bill at first reading, and let the parameters and scope of the bill be explored in select committee, and the evidence and arguments supporting a given scope assessed. When the bill comes back to the house a second time, MPs will have a chance to reflect on the scope of the bill once more, with select committee analysis in support of a given drafting. It’s my hope that the Greens, whose party policy is to support assisted dying for the terminally ill, will take this approach.
The scope of who is eligible is also a key one, and exactly what select committee is for. Also worth noting that further refinements can be made at the committee of the house stage.
Lecretia’s story provides one example of many such cases where access to assisted dying can provide comfort and control to individuals in their final days. If MPs take the time to put themselves in her shoes, it’s my hope that their consciences will see their way to making assisted dying legal in New Zealand. A law change will not result in more people dying – we all die at some point, after all – but in fewer people needlessly suffering. As a compassionate society that cares for its citizens, that is only decent and fair.
So very true.