Whether to legalise euthanasia and/or assisted-suicide is an on-going debate being held in New Zealand, and internationally. In New Zealand, discussions about euthanasia often arise in the media in response to high profile court cases, whether here or overseas, or when there are visits to the country by those promoting euthanasia or speaking against it.
Over the last few years there have been several events that have brought euthanasia into prominence.
Proposed End of Life Choice bill
In 2012, Labour List MP Maryan Street prepared a Private Members Bill, the "End of Life Choice Bill". It was withdrawn from the ballot box prior to the 2014 election campaign as the Labour Leadership did not want it debated during an election year.
The Seales v Attorney-General High Court Case
Earlier in 2015, Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales, who was suffering from a terminal brain cancer, sought a ruling from the High Court that assisted dying was not unlawful under the Crimes Act and that a ban on assisted dying contravened her human rights under the NZ Bill of Rights Act. The Court found that assisted dying would be unlawful and that the relevant provisions of the Crimes Act were consistent with the rights and freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights Act. It further suggested that changes to the law sought by Ms Seales could only be made by Parliament. Justice Collins referred specifically to the complexity and broad nature of the issues that are implicated in changing the law, stating that: "The complex legal, philosophical, moral and clinical issues raised by Ms Seales' proceedings can only be addressed by Parliament passing legislation to amend the effect of the Crimes Act."
Voluntary Euthanasia Society's petition to Parliament
Following the outcome of Ms Seales case, a petition organised by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society was presented to Parliament in June 2015 by former MP Maryan Street and Matt Vickers, the husband of Lecretia Seales. It asked that the House of Representatives investigate public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation permitting medically-assisted dying. The Health Select Committee will undertake this work.
Developments in Canada, South Africa, and the UK
Meanwhile, in February 2015, the Supreme Court in Canada ruled that the law that makes physician-assisted suicide illegal should be amended. And in South Africa in May 2015, a similar case to that of Lecretia Seales, which legally speaking applied only to the plaintiff, succeeded although the plaintiff died of natural causes shortly before the judgement was released. However, similar arguments used to support a Bill to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland in May 2015 failed when the Bill was defeated by a vote of 82-36. In June 2015 the European Court of Human Rights, and in July 2015, the High Court of England and Wales, both considered and rejected similar arguments to those used in the Seales case, viz., that refusal of assisted suicide was a breach of human rights.
Does it matter?
Many people see this issue primarily as a debate about freedom of choice. However a law change would pose real dangers for our society. In spite of lawmakers' best intentions, there are no adequate legal safeguards that can be put in place to protect vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, or those with disabilities should euthanasia or assisted-suicide be legalised.
To oppose euthanasia is not so much to deny choice to a particular group but to uphold the choice to continue living for a far greater number of New Zealanders.