The Disability Rights Commissioner has submitted a scathing report on David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill, saying it does not include adequate safeguards.

Disability Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero released her submission on ACT leader David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill on Wednesday. The report is critical of the safeguards written into the bill, which Tesoriero thinks do not go far enough to protect the disabled.

At the heart of the submission is the question of whether the way the bill is drafted restricts its application to those with terminal illnesses. 

“The key thing for New Zealanders to understand is that this bill goes beyond terminal illness,” Tesoriero told Newsroom .

“What people need to understand is there’s a really broad scope to the bill, and quite a range of disabilities or chronic health conditions could be considered a grievous or irremediable condition,” she said. “We haven’t had a discussion about the extension of the scope beyond terminal illness.”

Tesoriero’s submission argues that a wide range of chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders, intellectual disabilities, autism and other neuro-disabilities and regional pain syndromes, “if advanced and sufficiently degenerative,” could fall within the bill’s scope. 

In response, Seymour maintained that the bill was adequately drafted.

“The submission did not acknowledge section 4 (d) of the bill,” he said. “A person cannot access an assisted death unless they are in ‘an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability.’ This means that a person cannot access an assisted death because of their level of capability, it is being in an advanced state of decline that counts.”

Seymour said that this section provided adequate safeguard against the scope of the bill widening to include those without a terminal illness.

The Disability Commissioner was particularly concerned with the “either/or” nature of section 4 (c) of the bill, which states that to be eligible, a person must suffer from “a terminal illness that is likely to end his or her life within 6 months” or a “grievous and irremediable medical condition”.

Seymour argued that this “either/or” section was adequately mollified by section 4 (d) of the bill.

“It’s not a menu,” he said.

Section 4 (d) lists requirements for those eligible to use euthanasia services. The most important being that someone must be in an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capability,” which Seymour argues is a sufficient safeguard. It also states that the person must understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying. Seymour believes that this will also safeguard against people with intellectual disabilities using the euthanasia services.

He said that disabled people should be given the same rights as anyone else to choose to end their lives, but that the bill’s drafting was clear that only people with terminal illnesses, whether disabled or not, could make use of euthanasia services. He believed the bill as drafted granted equal access to end of life choices, while safeguarding against vulnerable people making use of the law unnecessarily.

Tesoriero disagreed.

“There’s no requirement in the bill to determine whether a person experiences a mental health condition which might impair their judgment,” she said.

The Human Rights Commission (the agency in which the Disability Commissioner operates) submitted to the Health Select Committee a report in support of euthanasia in 2016. That report supported euthanasia if the legislation could be developed to comply with three key provisions: first, that it be consistent with human rights; second, that it included adequate safeguards; third, that it be developed in conjunction with improving palliative care.

Tesoriero said that the current bill did not meet those standards.

“It may be possible for a framework to be in place if, among other things, there were safeguards in place. Our view is that the safeguards in place in this bill are woefully inadequate for terminal illness,” she said.

She also raised issues about the wider context of society and the state’s approach to the disabled.

“This whole bill is premised on a medical model, not the social model of disability which says that you are only disabled by the barriers that are put in your way. What we have to focus on is improving the support systems available to disabled people to enable them to live good lives rather than focusing on enabling a good death”.

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