Time to have that talk on euthanasia Parliament keeps saying we need to have

Parliament - or, at least, a committtee of Parliament - is finally getting the chance to allow the public discussion of end of life choice that (most) everyone says is needed in the wake of Lecretia Seales' court case. Will it now do its job?

Update: Yes. Yes it will.

[Update: That was quick! Turns out this post was pretty much unnecessary!

Parliament's Health Committee has agreed to hold an inquiry into whether or not the law should be changed to allow voluntary euthanasia.

It will be a cross-party inquiry, with the specific details yet to be confirmed.

So only read on if you enjoy reading yesterday's newspaper.]

Via National MP Scott Simpson's twitter feed, it appears that the Vountary Euthanasia Society's petition asking that the New Zealand House of Representatives "investigate fully public attitudes towards the introduction of legislation which would permit meically assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable" has been referred to the House's Health Select Committee. This is the right place for it to go - the issue is properly one of health policy and not, say, law and order.

The question then arises, what will happen with this petition? There's two possibilities. One is that the Committee simply notes its existence and does nothing else. That would be a shameful abdication of its responsibility as representatives of the people of New Zealand. Whatever your views on the substantive merits of permitting aid in dying (whether it be facilitated or assisted), it has to be talked about. And we pay parliamentarians a very good salary to be the people who facilitate that sort of important public conversation.

So the only principled action that the Committee can take is to respond to the petition by holding the inquiry that it asks for. Note that this inquiry is just what it says - the Committee would examine the issue, seek and hear submissions both from experts and members of the general public, before issuing a report and possible recommendations to government for action. The Committee itself cannot change the law.

So how would such an inquiry come about? Under Standing Order 189(2):

The subject select committees may receive briefings on, or initiate inquiries into, matters related to their respective subject areas ... 

How does a committee then decide to hold such an inquiry? Well, Standing Order 204 says:

Subject to the express provisions of the Standing Orders or any practice of the House to the contrary, the same rules for the conduct of proceedings are followed by select committees as apply to the conduct of proceedings in a committee of the whole House. 

And Standing Order 139(2) states:

Questions are determined by a majority of votes Aye or No. Every member is entitled to one vote or to abstain. 

Which, to cut to the chase, means that the Health Committee can hold an inquiry as requested by the petitioners if a majority of the members of the Committee agree to hold it. Which then raises the question, who are they and what might they individually decide to do?

From Parliament's website, here's the members of that Committee:

Health Chairperson O'Connor, Simon National Party, Tāmaki
Health Deputy-Chairperson Kuriger, Barbara National Party, Taranaki-King Country
Health Member Dean, Jacqui National Party, Waitaki
Health Member Hague, Kevin Green Party, List
Health Member King, Annette Labour Party, Rongotai
Health Member Reti, Shane National Party, Whangarei
Health Member Simpson, Scott National Party, Coromandel
Health Member Stewart, Barbara NZ First, List
Health Member Wall, Louisa Labour Party, Manurewa



From what I can find on the public record, Annette King and Kevin Hague have spoken in support of having a parliamentary debate on the issue of aid in dying, while Barbara Stewart voted for Peter Brown's "Death with Dignity Bill" back in 2003. I'm also hoping that Louisa Wall's commitment to personal autonomy and recognition of individual dignity extends beyond same-sex marriage to at least talking about whether to permit end of life choice. 

That then leaves the five National Party members of the Committee. What can we glean of their views with the quick help of Ms Google?

  • Its chair, Simon O'Connor, is dead set against any law change at all - here is the flier for a talk he gave to Right to Life NZ in April of this year on ""Euthanasia, a threat to a culture of life". 
  • Barbara Kuriger is quoted here as answering a question on the issue along the lines that "[her] party['s] policy was that there needs to be a national conversation about this". 
  • Jacqui Dean, in her capacity as chair of the Justice and Electoral Committee (another possible destination for the VES petition) is reported here as saying "she would be happy to consider an inquiry."
  • I can't find anything on Scott Simpson's views of the issue, but will simply note that he found sending the petition to his committee "interesting" and he voted in favour of same-sex Marriage in 2013 - for whatever those facts are worth.
  • I can't find anything at all about Shane Reti. Honestly. Nothing. At. All.
So, these ten folk are on notice. Do they act responsibly and in keeping with their constitutional role as representatives of the people of New Zealand? Or do they duck an issue that they think is too scarey and politically troubling, in order to try and avoid the hastle of thinking and talking about it?
Their move.