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David Seymour. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Getty

David Seymour's euthanasia bill triumph

The Act MP has made history with the End of Life Choice Bill which has passed its third reading and will go to a public vote next year.

When I first spoke to David Seymour in early 2016, I wondered if he was familiar with US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s assertion that the most important requirement for a politician is being able to count.

A few weeks earlier, the Epsom MP had declined John Key’s offer of a ministerial post partly, he said, because he wanted to continue to champion his End of Life Choice member’s bill — despite the fact most commentators predicted it didn’t have much chance of being drawn any time soon and it was very unlikely to be selected before the next election.

Seymour, however, was optimistic. He reckoned the odds of his bill being drawn before the end of 2017 weren’t too bad. He ran me through his calculations — and said that even if the bill wasn’t plucked from Parliament’s biscuit tin it was worth taking the chance.

It was obvious he could count very capably — which is perhaps hardly surprising since he is a qualified electrical engineer — but I still thought he was overly optimistic. I reminded him that NZ First’s Peter Brown had re-lodged his Death with Dignity Bill after its narrow defeat in the House in 2003 but it was still languishing undrawn when he left Parliament in 2008.

Seymour was quietly confident, nevertheless. And it turned out his optimism was justified. The End of Life Choice Bill, which he had lodged in October 2015, was drawn in June 2017.

Since then he has steered the bill through three parliamentary readings, 16 months of Justice select committee hearings, taken part in more than 30 public meetings “from Kerikeri to Gore”, as well as conducting frequent media interviews on the topic.

He also (reluctantly) trimmed the ambitious scope of the original bill to have it apply only to the terminally ill — all to get the necessary public support and parliamentary numbers to push it over the line.

Last night, he succeeded. Parliament passed the End of Life Choice Bill at its third reading by a majority of 69-51. At NZ First’s insistence, it will now be put to the public in a referendum at next year’s election to be ratified — or not — before it can come into force.

 

If a majority of voters don’t back it, it’s unlikely that a new bill will appear for some time. Rejection will inevitably mean that politicians — who for decades have avoided tackling the topic like the plague — won’t go near it again for a long while.

It is true that polls for more than 20 years have consistently shown a handsome majority for legalising assisted dying but ratification of the End of Life Choice Bill, if likely, is not certain — not least because an extensive, well-funded campaign will be mounted to sway the public against it. The referendum, you might say, will be a do-or-die moment for assisted dying, at least for the foreseeable future.

But, whether the question succeeds in the referendum or not, getting the bill through Parliament is already a personal triumph for Act’s leader and its only MP. Before Peter Brown’s bill was defeated, a bill sponsored by then National MP Michael Laws had similarly failed to pass its first reading in 1995.

Seymour was clearly the right man for the job although not everyone has always seen it that way. Even some advocates of assisted dying thought he didn’t command enough respect in Parliament to win over wavering colleagues while others thought his approach was not subtle enough.

It’s now clear they underestimated his dedication, intellect and tactical ability.

Seymour turned out to be an astute marshal among his parliamentary peers, carefully calculating the numbers that would keep his bill alive and doing whatever was needed to secure them.

He understood the advantage of surprise too, and exactly when to give way to gain advantage. By the anniversary of the bill’s first reading, it was clear that the clause allowing an assisted death for those suffering from a “grievous and irremediable medical condition in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability” presented an insurmountable obstacle to a law change — not least because it made it unlikely the Greens would continue to support the bill on account of their concerns for the disabled.

Consequently, in December 2018, Seymour announced that, among a number of changes, he recommended the bill be restricted to the terminally ill expected to live for no more than six months (or 12 months for degenerative conditions), as well as explicitly stating that disability alone would not be grounds for an assisted death.

His arch-opponent, North Shore MP Maggie Barry, was blindsided by this change of tack. Seymour had not only suddenly removed the principal focus of her criticisms, but he also magnanimously offered to incorporate her own palliative care bill into his proposal.

Her televised bluster at Parliament in which she accused Seymour of being “cute”, “publicity seeking” and indulging in “an extraordinary flight of fancy” showed that not only had she underestimated him but also that any changes that might make the bill more palatable to critics were anathema to her.

It was blindingly obvious at that moment that no matter how many safeguards and restrictions might be introduced to allay concerns, Barry’s opposition would always be implacable.

Barry has been Seymour’s most prominent opponent but he has also faced down other powerful antagonists — including the Catholic Church, which has dedicated itself to killing the bill.

Read more: Euthanasia debate: Why the Catholic Church hides its face | Lecretia Seales' widower makes his case for death with dignity

Now that it is set on the path to a referendum, there will be no let-up in the intensity of the opposition. In fact, it will likely intensify, with conservative churches redoubling their efforts to persuade their congregations to vote against it.

Last week, the leaders of our main Christian churches — as well as the Federation of Islamic Associations and the Salvation Army — wrote to MPs to declare their opposition to the bill in a last-ditch move to stop it.

Their letter was littered with tenuous claims — including a warning about a slippery slope and suggesting a possible link between assisted dying and suicide rates, with a plea to not pass the bill until “the evidence shows there is no direct causal link”.

It was also notable for not mentioning the religious reasons that underpin their opposition, such as the notion that all life is a gift from God and therefore your life belongs to him, and only He can interrupt it.

In the run-up to the referendum, voters and MPs can expect to see much more of the same — as well as replays of the more outrageous assertions made in the campaign so far. One of the most egregious has been Sir Bill English’s reference to someone getting on “the euthanasia conveyor belt” and not being able to get off.

This is completely untrue. In fact, a glance at Parliament’s summary of Seymour’s bill shows a doctor has to “ensure that the person knows that he or she can change his or her mind at any time”.

A lot of effort will undoubtedly also be put into a fresh attempt to persuade voters that the “vulnerable” are at risk of being railroaded into an early death. This despite the fact that academic research in jurisdictions that have legalised assisted dying (such as Oregon, the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada) has shown that the typical patient using these laws has been assertive, articulate, well-educated and from the middle and upper-middle classes.

In response to the possibility of false claims and blatant lies, Justice Minister Andrew Little has said he will set up a team within the Ministry of Justice to identify misinformation and to direct people to reliable sources — a move which has seen criticism from both sides of the debate (including deriding the “misinformation unit” as a “Ministry of Truth”). 

Even ardent supporters of a law change — who might have reason to fear a campaign of “fear, uncertainty and doubt” (as Seymour has described it) — have argued that the government’s role should be limited to making sure that the bill’s proposals are widely disseminated, and expressed in language most voters can understand. After that, they say, it should be left to public debate to sort fact from fiction — even if there is an awful lot of the latter.

Winston Peters has made it clear where he believes responsibility for a fair referendum lies, declaring his faith in the public’s ability to make the right decision.

After his amendment requiring a referendum was passed on October 23, he told journalists: “They've got the brains, they’ve got the intelligence, they’ve got the experience. You [the media] make sure they get the information [and] it will be fine.”

David Seymour is also putting his faith in the “wisdom of crowds” and doesn’t think a campaign of misinformation or scare-mongering will work — not least because even after years of sometimes vitriolic opposition polls continue to show support of more than 70 per cent.

“[People] have seen bad deaths, and they’ve said, ‘When my time comes that's not for me, I want choice.’

“It's very difficult to overturn people’s heartfelt feelings with Facebook advertising.”

Supporters will hope that Seymour’s optimism about his bill’s prospects in next year’s referendum turns out to be as well founded as it was when he calculated the odds of his member’s bill being drawn nearly four years ago.

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