MPs facing an already difficult choice on whether to allow euthanasia in New Zealand may feel increasingly conflicted after high-profile figures on each side of the debate made articulate arguments for their case, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Parliament’s justice select committee has been asked to grapple a near-Sisyphean task: making its way through over 35,000 submissions on David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill and coming out the other side with coherent recommendations.

The legislation, which would provide medical access to assisted suicide in New Zealand, has stirred up strong and varied feelings throughout the country.

That was particularly evident as high-profile Kiwis on opposite sides of the debate made their cases to MPs on Thursday.

First was Sir Bill English, the former prime minister, who sat alongside his wife, practicing GP Dr Mary English, as they made the case for scrapping Seymour’s bill.

“What starts out as permitted will become desirable, and then for some will become an unconsented necessity – that’s the slippery slope and there’s actually no way around it.”

Bill English was scathing of euthanasia during his time in Parliament and picked up where he left off, saying the legislation was flawed in principle and beyond salvaging in practice.

“What starts out as permitted will become desirable, and then for some will become an unconsented necessity – that’s the slippery slope and there’s actually no way around it.”

“I’ve got an 18-year-old, and I can tell you if there’s any suggestion of unlawful killing of that young man, even by his own wish, I’d want that open to full legal scrutiny.”

He argued the test for consent was too low, saying: “The standard for a property deal is much higher than the test for someone deciding to have their life taken, and that is simply unsustainable.”

There was no requirement to record the process and little chance for accountability in the case a wrong decision was made, he said.

“You can be killed under this law unlawfully, and that cannot be tested in court,” he claimed, hitting the table with his hand in emphasis.

The standard for approval under the euthanasia legislation is too low, Sir Bill English says. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

He also spoke about facing pressure to deal with high youth suicide levels as prime minister, saying the rates could increase if suicide was legitimised through law.

“How can we say to them it’s a bad thing for a young person to think about taking their life, but a great, progressive thing for a sick old person to think about taking their life when 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds face the same existential pain, maybe more, than the adult?”

Mary English said she was opposed to “state-sanctioned killing”, with nothing in Seymour’s bill sufficient to contain the incredible power over life which doctors would have.

“If you ask [doctors], ‘What is your bottom line?’…most importantly, we don’t want to be responsible for the death of a patient that didn’t need to happen.”

She expressed concern that elderly people would feel under pressure to kill themselves as if they were a burden, with not all families willing to provide necessary support and in some cases taking advantage of them.

Seymour pushed back against suggestions the bill was flawed, asking Bill English why it had passed the Attorney-General’s scrutiny, and similar Canadian legislation the test of that country’s Supreme Court.

“I just think the analysis is wrong….. It doesn’t reflect any practical understanding of the impact of this,” English responded.

The couple are staunch Catholics, but Bill English said euthanasia should not be seen as a battleground between believers and atheists, “just an issue of different belief systems”.

‘How much would you suffer?’

The former Prime Minister and his wife then made way for reform advocate Matt Vickers: there appeared to be goodwill despite their different views, with Sir Bill shaking Vickers’ hand before departing the room.

Vickers’ late wife, Lecretia Seales, petitioned the High Court for the right to die after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Seales died shortly after a judge ruled it was for Parliament to change or keep the law, but Vickers has picked up her mantle as a campaigner for reform.

He opened by asking MPs to put themselves in the mindset of someone facing a terminal illness and knowing they were going to die.

“Would you meet God, would you feel nothing, and how much would you suffer before you got there?”

Perhaps anticipating Mary English’s criticism that the proposed legislation was “incredibly liberal”, Vickers proposed a number of changes which he said would bring it line with “the most conservative regimes in the world”.

Access to assisted dying should be restricted to only those with a terminal illness likely to kill them within six months, he said; at present, the legislation also allows those suffering “a grievous and irremediable medical condition” to end their lives.

Terminally ill people are in a similar position to those who chose to jump from the twin towers, Matt Vickers says. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

However, he pushed back at the suggestion the legislation lacked safeguards, saying those criticism “do not understand or are wilfully representing” how it would interact with the existing Crimes Act.

“Stepping outside the bounds of the process will put the medical professional at risk of prosecution of murder or assisted suicide.”

There was no evidence of elder abuse or coercion to suicide in countries which had euthanasia regimes, he said.

Terminally ill people did not want to die, Vickers said, but had little choice, drawing a parallel to victims of the September 11 attacks who chose to jump from the burning World Trade Center.

Politicians do not face a choice on that level, but the gravity of the situation appears to be weighing on select committee MPs who asked measured and careful questions of both the Englishes and Vickers.

With the committee not due to report back until March next year, there are plenty more difficult days ahead.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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