There is a tin. It looks like Nana's biscuit tin, but is actually the tin from which private members’ bills are drawn from the ballot every second Wednesday of the month in parliament.
If we were to see inside the tin on such a Wednesday, we would see roughly 80 numbered plastic tiles, each one identifying an MP’s private bill waiting to see the light of day. Many of them won’t.
Private members’ bills provide for some of our most important social reforms. In May 2012, Louisa Wall submitted her private member’s bill on marriage equality. It was drawn in August 2012 and enacted into law by April 2013. Legal and social history was made.
In October last year, another tile went in the tin — David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill.
And there it waits.
It's the latest in a growing line of such tiles. Last year, Maryan Street’s End of Life Choice bill was withdrawn after languishing for 18 months. It suffered a death-blow after the lack of enthusiasm shown by the Labour leader Andrew Little in 2013 (an election year).
Back in 2003, the NZ First MP Peter Brown's Death with Dignity bill was only narrowly defeated 60-58 in a conscience vote at its first reading. In 1995, Michael Laws also had a go, only to be defeated by a much wider margin (61–29).
Euthanasia is not a new issue, but it seems to me that medically-assisted dying, as one kind of euthanasia, has received a lot of positive media comment and attention recently.
Maryan Street’s submission of a petition to parliament seeking a law change to allow assisted dying received good coverage. In fact, the Health Select Committee launched a parliamentary inquiry as a result of the petition, for which submissions closed on 31 January.
Lecretia Seales, a lawyer, sought to have the courts interpret the Crimes Act 1961 in such a way that her own doctor would not face prosecution for helping her to die. The courts declined that opportunity just before her death last December, leaving any such reform to parliament.
Helen Kelly, the trade unionist and former head of the CTU, in coming to terms with her own terminal illness, has also sought the right to assisted dying.
Cases involving people seeking to end their own lives at a time of their choosing are being reported perhaps more favourably in the media. As a prime example, Peter and Patricia Shaw, an Australian couple who killed themselves in October last year.
There's been considerable debate within mainstream media outlets about euthanasia. I know this because Stuff has a tab under its “National” news page called “Euthanasia”.
In my view, there's considerable work being done to prepare the ground for David Seymour’s bill to be ushered into law, should it be drawn.
Of course, politics being what it is, the bill may not succeed anyway. Nevertheless, the time is ripe for Māori and Pacific peoples to be heard in what is developing into a nationwide debate.
Except I’m not hearing them. There are a few opinion pieces here and there, but nothing like the furious debate at the time of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (which drew 200 submissions from Māori), and the attention (rightly) given to Māori suicide prevention generally.
What might Māori and Pacific practices around death and dying have to reveal about assisted dying? What might tikanga reveal? While religious creed might uphold the sanctity of life, how might such creeds influence or align with tikanga Māori perceptions of the sanctity of life?
In the scraps of material I've seen, Māori and Pacific peoples are divided. There's no one view about euthanasia, including assisted dying. And there are few signals coming from Māori politicians. The Māori Party is non-committal although “open to a debate” while Marama Fox is unconvinced assisted-dying legislation is needed. Metiria Tūrei has voiced support for the current parliamentary inquiry, but little more.
To be fair, there may have been a plethora of Māori and Pacific voices included in the submissions to the inquiry that closed three weeks ago. I hope so, but I doubt it, given the lack of chatter about the issue on social media at least.
In its submission to the current parliamentary inquiry, the Nathaniel Centre has this from the late Amster Reedy:
"We bring people into this world, we care for them right from the time they are conceived, born, reared, in health, sickness and in death. The rituals still exist for every part of our lives — we just need to have faith in our ancestors. Euthanasia is foreign to Māori and has no place in our society."
Penehe Patelehio (Tokelauan/Samoan/Cook Island) is cited in the same submission:
"When someone is ill or dying, the idea of assisted-suicide or euthanasia is entirely foreign to us. There is no word in our language for this concept and consequently it does not enter into our thinking. The opportunity to care for and look after someone who is ill or dying/suffering is seen as a blessing even though it may present significant financial and other challenges. At such times the extended family and community networks come to the fore – it is common for immediate and extended family and community members to visit, provide food, and massage and converse with the person who is ill."
For me, the debate is not really about the value of life versus the value of personal autonomy to choose to die. Both things are good and neither are absolute. I recognise that the value of life, or the right to life, will not always win over other considerations. (The ability in law to defend oneself to the death from attack is an example where the life of the attacker is not to be preserved at all costs.)
In my mind, that debate is actually a little sterile, but important for those who want to contribute to it.
I want to ask instead: how vulnerable might elderly or sick Māori and Pacific peoples be within a regime that allows assisted dying?
One of the oft-cited great risks of any assisted-dying regime is that elderly people facing the end of their lives because of illness will seek to end their lives prematurely so as not to be a burden on their families.
Others might seek assisted dying, not so much at their own behest, but at the behest of other family members. In a society where one in 10 older persons (and proportionally more Māori) are reported to experience some kind of abuse, especially connected to vulnerability and coercion, such risks must not be ignored.
To be honest, the idea of assisted dying frightens me. I'm not really frightened of the idea of humanely ending the life of someone in terrible and terminal pain, although I cannot extricate my Christianity from my position that life is worth preserving.
I can understand why there appears to be so much public support for such a choice to be allowed. Many of those who voice such an opinion have watched their own friends or family die. Who am I to deny their experience?
Indeed, my fear also stems from personal experience: from my mother dying from lung cancer last year.
I and my two brothers were fortunate enough to have been with her over those last weeks and months of her life as her physical presence declined and her mind became incapable of lucid decision-making. I wrote a post about our experience at the time.
Her death didn't frighten me; it was the realisation of the power we had over her shrinking life. We had absolute control over her money. We made the decisions about where she lived and where she died. Her possessions became ours in practicality well before her will made that legally possible.
What frightened me was the prospect that I should have had any power whatsoever over her death. My mother would have, without hesitation, signed any end-of-life directive (had that been available to her) — to absolve medical staff of responsibility, or naming me or one of my brothers the final decision-maker on terminating her life in the event of her mental incapacity.
To be fair to David Seymour, his bill is careful to ensure some safeguards aimed at minimising some of the risk that vulnerable people might face. It makes no provision for the kinds of advance directives that would have given us the power to end Mum’s life after she lost the capacity to decide for herself.
But the bill only goes so far. The initial medical professional who receives a request for assisted dying under clause 8(2)(h) must:
do his or her best to ensure that the person expresses his or her wish free from pressure from any other person.
These few words seem oddly subjective and lacking in effectiveness. The medical practitioner is not charged with “ensuring” the absence of coercion (and perhaps this is simply not possible), just doing his or her “best” to ensure such. Whatever “his or her best” might mean.
If that clause is all that stands between a coercive and abusive family and an elderly person choosing to die as a result of coercion, I am not yet reassured. Should the bill be drawn, this clause will need one heck of a lot of work.
We all know that the law and lived reality are two very different creatures.
Make no mistake. Today there are elderly people, at least some of them Māori or Pacific, who will likely be subject to some degree of coercion, if assisted dying becomes legal in a country already distinguished by high rates of Māori suicide, and growing rates of suicide among the elderly.
Surely it's time for more Māori and Pasifika speakers to step onto the marae ātea for this issue. In readiness for the time a certain tile comes out of Nana’s tin.