Parliament’s largest-ever inquiry into voluntary euthanasia has not recommended that Government make it legal.
The Health Committee’s report on a petition by former Labour MP and assisted dying advocate Maryan Street was tabled in Parliament this afternoon.
The two-year inquiry heard from 22,000 submitters, including 1000 of them in person.
The petition was signed by nearly 9000 people and asked for a full investigation into public attitudes to medically-assisted dying for people with a terminal or irreversible condition. It also asked for a change to the existing law.
Committee chairman Simon O’Connor said the report did not make any formal recommendations to the Government about whether euthanasia should be legalised. It instead provided a summary of the arguments for and against assisted dying.
“We’ve tried to distil all the arguments and our recommendation to both the Parliament and the people of New Zealand is to read this report and come to a deeper understanding of what’s been asked around assisted suicide and euthanasia.”
O’Connor said that in his personal view, the report did not indicate that assisted dying should be legalised.
“As I look at it myself, the arguments are quite compelling that while we understand why people ask for this, it’s equally an issue for public safety and not a prudent step to make.”
Green Party health spokeswoman Julie-Anne Genter said the committee could not reach a consensus on a law change. Genter, whose party supports voluntary euthanasia, said it was a consolation that there was no formal recommendation against a law change.
The inquiry was helpful in identifying the problems which would need to be addressed if Parliament considered a law change in future, she said.
Between 75 and 80 per cent of the submissions were opposed to legalising voluntary euthanasia and the rest wanted a law change.
“But I don’t think this is simply a numbers game,” O’Connor said. “It is about actually understanding the arguments for and against and making a decision about which ones are correct.”
He said the main argument against a legal euthanasia regime was public safety.
“It is very difficult to see how there could be sufficient safeguards to actually protect vulnerable people in New Zealand. And that’s been the experience overseas as well.
“It probably comes down to the simple question of ‘How many errors would Parliament would be willing to accept in this space?'”
And while there were some doctors who supported a change, there was strong opposition from some parts of the medical profession who said it was not compatible with their work.
A bill in the name of Act leader David Seymour, which would legalise voluntary euthanasia, is set to be considered by Parliament but time is running out for it to be debated before the election.
It is highly unlikely to get its first reading before Parliament wraps up later this month.
Seymour said today that the report’s recommendations were “weak” and it showed why a vote on his bill was needed.
The inquiry had still been valuable, he said, because it “scotched” some of the myths and conspiracy theories raised about euthanasia.
“The report acknowledges that there is no connection between assisted dying and suicide. The report acknowledges that there is no connection between weakening perceptions of doctors and assisted dying. So in many respects the report is a good thing.”
The report was unanimously backed by political parties, though New Zealand First said any decision about legalising assisted dying should require a referendum, rather than a conscience vote in Parliament.
It said opponents’ main concern was that the public would be endangered if the law was changed, in particular vulnerable people like the elderly, disabled and mentally ill. They argued that life had “innate value” and introducing assisted dying would undermine that idea.
Other opponents said euthanasia should not be legalised until the suicide rate in New Zealand had fallen.
Supporters of assisted dying said they feared losing their dignity, independence and physical and mental capacity. They also spoke about having to watch loved ones suffer from a painful death.
There were concerns expressed about palliative care in New Zealand, in particular its availability and funding.
In the end, the committee made no recommendation about a law change, saying that such issues were usually dealt with by a conscience vote.
The committee concluded: “This issue is clearly very complicated, very divisive and extremely contentious.
“We therefore encourage everyone with an interest in the subject to read the report in full and to draw their conclusions based on the evidence we have presented.”