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The assisted dying debate: MP David Seymour responds

Jan 29, 2016 Politics

MP David Seymour continues the assisted dying debate in response to arguments presented on this site by Matthew Jansen and Graham Adams.


Matthew Jansen recently attacked my End of Life Choice Bill in his reply to Graham Adams’ excellent article Lecretia Seales: the backlash begins.

It is too tempting to engage Mr Jansen on a number of factual and logical errors. He implies, for instance, that if Matt Vickers accepts an invitation to speak at a conference, he necessarily must share all the views of his hosts and co-speakers even when Vickers may never have offered any opinion on them at all. To ask Vickers, for instance, to distance himself from the view that everyone over 70 should have access to a suicide pill is, as Graham Adams noted, an “outrageous example of a red herring”.

At the same time, Jansen brushes over the near-uniform religiosity of his own Care Alliance by claiming it’s just your regular bunch of “Quakers and Catholics and Protestants and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists”.

He also tries to dismiss consistent polls showing over 70 per cent of New Zealanders support assisted dying legislation by pointing out that my own polling registered just 66 per cent in support. This still represents overwhelming political support for any proposal or person in the political system. (Prime Ministers Clark and Key just broke 60 per cent at their respective heights of popularity; no one has ever used those figures to show that Clark and Key were actually quite unpopular!);

He cites a case where a Dutch person was made to choose between euthanasia and a rest home (apparently an unsourced anecdote from a 1999 article, three years before the Netherlands legalised assisted dying); and that 0.4 per cent of those who die in the Netherlands are euthanized without giving explicit consent (this figure appears to be sourced from a British Medical Journal article which was making the point that under the ‘double-effect’ doctrine doctors often end their patients’ lives while attempting to treat pain, and the figure was 0.7 per cent prior the Netherlands’ legalisation of assisted dying).

Finally, we should mention his puerile ending, ‘Let’s do this’ — as if the assisted dying debate were an episode of theatrical wrestling).

So much for Jansen’s views on the wider issue.  There are a few facts that I would like to get straight because they pertain to my End of Life Choice Private Members Bill, which I hope will be drawn from the ballot and debated in the near future.

Why I have put this bill forward

Mr Jansen says the End of Life Choice Bill is a “recipe for state-sanctioned assisted suicide on demand by just about everyone”. This is wildly misleading – the eligibility requirements are very narrow in scope. The Bill (which you can read in full here) defines a person eligible for assisted dying as someone who:

  • is aged 18 years or over
  • has New Zealand citizenship or is a permanent resident
  • suffers from a terminal illness likely to end their life within six months, or has a serious grievous and irremediable medical condition
  • is in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability
  • experiences unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved in a manner that he or she considers tolerable
  • has the ability to understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying.

Crucially, a person must meet all of these criteria in order to be eligible for an assisted death. The wording for this is very deliberate. This bill will only be available for the small but significant number of citizens who currently find themselves in the position that the Supreme Court of Canada described in its ruling that will now require the Canadian parliament to legalise assisted dying or risk breaching the Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

“…people who are grievously and irremediably ill cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”

Mr Jansen says that illness prognosis is notoriously unreliable. Although he exaggerates, his point is well-taken. Of course it is not possible to predict a prognosis with absolute certainty, but my bill dictates that two doctors must have good reason to believe a person’s terminal illness will end that person’s life within six months, alongside the other legal conditions.

This is not a bill affecting people who are healthy, people who are clinically depressed or people who can have their pain managed effectively with palliative care.

This bill is for those who are of sound mind, are facing the prospect of a painful undignified death, and who want to choose the manner and timing of their final days in the same way they have controlled every other aspect of their life. When the Quebec Select Committee on Dying with Dignity visited countries that practiced assisted dying, they found that “euthanasia only shortens life by about 10 days on average”. That is not a slippery slope; that is people exercising choice at the end of life.

Where to from here

Regardless of Mr Jansen’s misrepresentation of the details of the End of Life Choice Bill, I respond confidently in the knowledge that, once the Bill is drawn, he and his fellow critics will share their (sometimes reasonable) concerns through a fair select committee process. MPs on the committee will have the opportunity to address these concerns by observing what has and has not worked overseas, and supporting stringent safeguards (though I think they will find the Bill to be quite thorough in its current form).

Likewise, MPs will hear from members of the public submitting in favour of the Bill, sharing harrowing stories of prolonged painful decline at the end of life. These personal stories, from New Zealanders of all backgrounds, will be crucial in swaying MPs toward supporting assisted dying. The critics, however, will be well-organised, so I recommend all readers with experience in end-of-life issues to make a submission once the Bill is drawn.

In the meantime, you can submit to the current parliamentary inquiry on the topic, as well as sharing your experiences on the LifeChoice website and/or writing to your local MP.

Finally, such a contentious issue risks sparking disinformation from both sides. I have compiled a Q&A to diffuse euthanasia myths and assist in a constructive, respectful, and honest national discussion.

-David Seymour is the MP for Epsom and leader of ACT New Zealand. Twitter: @dbseymour.


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