The case for allowing aid in dying in New Zealand

Parliament's Health Committee couldn't decide on any major changes to the End of Life Choice Bill. That doesn't mean, however, that it won't be changed.

The End of Life Choice Bill, a member's bill in the name of David Seymour that would permit aid in dying, has been reported back by Parliament's Health Committee. Because that committee split 4-4 on the merits of the underlying idea - whether people facing imminent death or in a state of irremediable suffering ought to be able to end their own lives with medical assistance - it wasn't able to recommend any significant changes to it.

The Bill's opponents on the Committee weren't interested in backing any changes that might improve its chances of obtaining greater parliamentary support. Consequently, only some relatively anodyne and technical amendments to the existing proposals were agreed to. It is this (somewhat amended, but largely unchanged) Bill that now gets voted on by the whole House at its second reading.

However, David Seymour, as the Bill's sponsor, has indicated that should it pass through this stage he will seek to amend it more substantially during the "committee of the whole House". Basically, this would involve his trying to insert new provisions into the Bill to address many of the concerns that were raised during the select committee process.

Chief amongst these will be narrowing the range of people able to access aid in dying to only those whom two doctors agree have a prognosis of death within six months. In other words, you'll have to already be dying to be able to get medical assistance to die. Also, the decision whether to adopt this law will be handed over to the public by way of a referendum (something that NZ FIrst MPs require in order to even consider supporting the measure).

This first change would bring the End of Life Choice Bill into line with the systems that have been in place in various US states (such as Oregon, Washington, California, etc) since the 1990s. It also would mirror the system that I analysed (and defended) in this academic article back in 2017. So, if you are interested in what I obviously think is the strongest and best written argument in favour of the amended End of Life Choice Bill, have a click and read of it.

 Here's a taster of what I have to say there:

Many of us would prefer not to think about the issue of how and when we will die until we are compelled to do so. Should we turn our minds to such matters, understandable fears and emotions quickly can crowd out our higher reasoning facilities. But it is not necessary to embrace Plato’s assertion that “those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead” in order to confront the necessary implications of our mortality: even though we may wish to ignore death, it most assuredly will not ignore us. Uncomfortable and upsetting as they may be, questions about the ending we might want for our particular life story and thus what choices we think ought to be permitted in end of life situations are not something that we can or should avoid confronting with clear eyes and an open mind.
In this article I argue that New Zealand’s law should be amended to allow at least those competent and consenting adult persons:
  • experiencing unbearable physical or mental suffering;
  • as the result of an incurable and terminal medical condition;
  • where the best medical advice is that death will occur in the next six months;
to directly request that a willing doctor actively help end their life. To avoid repetition, I will refer to those in such a situation as being “relevant persons”. I focus on the case of relevant persons because it provides the strongest grounds for the proffered proposition; if anyone should be able to receive such help to die, it is they. Conversely, I accept that if the argument fails in respect of such relevant persons, then it fails in all other cases as well. The question whether, if successful for relevant persons, the argument then ought to apply to other classes of person—or, indeed, if it is possible to limit the argument’s reach at all—will be addressed in the article’s final part.