Aid in dying: time to do something!

It's a new year and we're all getting back to work. One of the things you have to add to your "to do" list in the next fortnight is be a good democratic citizen.

Reluctant as I am to start my 2016 Punditing by laying a guilt trip on you, that's what I'm going to end this post with. Some context, first.

Last year, somewhat to my own surprise, I became quite vocal around the issue of "aid in dying" (or, if you are trying to scare the horses, "euthanasia"/"assisted suicide"). It happened almost by accident. It certainly wasn't an issue I had given a huge amount of thought to previously; my knee-jerk socially liberal response was that I thought it ought to be permitted with appropriate safeguards and that's about as far as things went.

However, the case of Lecretia Seales really focused my attention onto the issue. Not only did it raise a number of very important legal issues that fall within my area of academic study, but I could strongly identify with her determination that decisions about how her death should come about should be hers alone to make. That resonated with me at a quite fundamental level.

Whether I could be so brave and principled as to make my determination a public matter I cannot say. But I deeply admired her decision to do so. For as the New Zealand Herald said when selecting her as its "New Zealander of the Year":

Instead of spending her last months quietly with family and friends, [Lecretia Seales] spent them in a legal battle - fighting for the right to choose how she died.

For that courageous effort, the late Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales is the Herald's New Zealander of the Year. She died, aged 42, on June 5 from brain cancer. Her death came just days after learning she had been unsuccessful in her High Court bid for the legal right for a doctor to help her end her life. She wanted the right to not die a painful death.

As the result of the debate she prompted, Parliament began the first public inquiry into the issue of medically assisted dying.

Having sat in on some of the High Court proceedings, I can only second the Herald's choice. Seeing Ms Seales being wheeled into the court, clearly drawing to the end of her time on earth, was deeply affecting. It brought home strongly that the judicial proceedings weren't just an abstract debate about theoretical matters. They were (literally) a life and death issue for a real, identifiable person ... who stood for other real, identifiable people in similar situations.

Of course, Ms Seales didn't get what she wanted from the Court. I had hoped that she might be more successful, but perhaps it is for the best that (as Justice Collins concluded) our elected, accountable representatives must make the call on when and how aid in dying may be provided in this country. Clearly these issues are something that many of us have strong and contrasting views on, so let's let those views be considered and acted on by people we choose to make laws for us instead of by an appointed ex-lawyer who happens to have been rostered onto a particular case.

That's all OK, as far as it goes. However, if we're going down that line of thinking, it then puts the onus back onto us. Because democratic representative government only works like it is meant to if we, the people who live under the laws our representatives choose, take the time and make the effort to participate in it. If we don't, then it really doesn't work at all.

So here's the challenge to anyone with views on how, when and if individuals should be able to choose the time and means of their own death.

Tell Parliament's Health Select Committee what you think about this issue.

You only have a little over two weeks left to do so - submissions close on 1 February. And as Graham Adams outlines in a recent story in Metro, there's something of an organised effort on the pro-status quo side to ensure that their viewpoint gets heard. So if you have a different take on the issue, or if you share that point of view, or whatever you think on the matter ... if you in any way admire Ms Seales' commitment and bravery in the face of impending death, then you owe it to her to make it known.

Some brief pointers/suggestions:

  • Making a submission is really, really, really easy! Just go here, verify that you are a real person, provide some personal details and then type what you think into the text box. Once you hit the submit button, you've done your bit (unless you want to go in front of the Committee to give oral evidence, that is.)
  • You don't need to be an expert or to know everything (or even all that much) about the topic - part of the purpose of this inquiry is to find out what ordinary New Zealanders think on the issues. So just speak from the heart!
  • If you have a personal story to tell about the hard choices that come at the end of life, so much the better. As Ms Seales showed, this isn't an abstract issue - real people and real suffering underlie it. But just be aware that a submissions is made public unless you ask (and the Committee agrees) to keep it private.
  • There is no magic formula or wording to use in your submission - just try to write clearly and make your point early in the piece. Remember that MPs are really busy folks who have to give their time and attention to lots of different matters. The more you can help them know what you want, the better.
  • Finally, if you are interested in what those who are still carrying Lecretia Seales' flame aloft think, you can read it here.

Right - that's enough from me. It's over to you now. Don't just flick to another blogsite ... take a few minutes to do some good. Here's that link again.