OPINION: End of Life Choice Bill `confronting’

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by Rangitata MP Andrew Falloon

Few issues are as important to us as matters of life and death. Most of us rightly fear death. But conversely, we have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, with a 10% increase in the last year alone.

In December 2017 our Parliament voted by 76 to 44 to send the End of Life Choice Bill to the select committee.

It’s the first time a piece of legislation that would provide a legal path to euthanasia for those with irrevocable illnesses has made it to that stage. I was one of those 76, believing that all New Zealanders, not just the politicians, should have a say.

And 35,000 New Zealanders did so, making written submissions to the committee. Over summer I read many thousands of those submissions. Some make for confronting reading.

Stories of parents and grandparents going through the most enormous suffering in their final weeks and months.

The final suggested change, a binding referendum, I support strongly because fundamentally I’m a democrat. It should be you, not just me, who decides.

People diagnosed with conditions such as Huntington’s disease. Knowing full well that they will likely deteriorate, losing the ability to walk, speak, chew or swallow, before finally dying.

The third-most common cause of death for those with Huntington’s is suicide. People taking their own lives while they are still able to, with many years of good life ahead of them, afraid of what will come when they no longer have control over their own bodies.

Many submitters raised valid concerns. The belief that the elderly might attempt to access euthanasia to avoid being “a burden”.

The message it sends to young people and those with mental health issues, that suicide is a valid alternative to life.

That we should instead be investing more in palliative care, even though providers themselves admit that palliation does not remove all pain.

The great debate . . . End of Life Choice Bill sponsor and Act MP David Seymour (centre) spoke to a South Canterbury audience at a public meeting on euthanasia in Timaru last year, which was also attended by Rangitata MP and meeting organiser Andrew Falloon (right) and National MP Michael Woodhouse (left). PHOTO: GRETA YEOMAN

I’ve raised many of the issues directly with David Seymour, the sponsor of the Bill. I’ve also hosted him at a public meeting here in Timaru, to listen to the concerns in our community. To address that feedback Mr Seymour has now proposed some changes, the four main ones being:

1) Incorporating the Access to Palliative Care Bill sponsored by Maggie Barry.

2) For avoidance of doubt, stating that access to assisted dying for people cannot be by reason of mental health conditions and disabilities only.

3) Amending criteria to limit eligibility to terminal illness.

4) A binding referendum on the commencement of the Bill at the general election.

The first two make perfect sense.

The third change would remove access to those with grievous and irremediable conditions. People with Huntington’s and other incurable illnesses causing immense suffering will not be able to access legal euthanasia unless they are in their last months of life.

The final suggested change, a binding referendum, I support strongly because fundamentally I’m a democrat. It should be you, not just me, who decides.

In a few months I’ll be called on again to cast a vote as to whether the legislation should continue to proceed. As always, I’d like to hear what you think.

You’re welcome to make an appointment at my Timaru office in Stafford St or email me andrew.falloon@parliament.govt.nz