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Maggie Barry: Bias and bullying in the euthanasia debate?


Maggie Barry speaking against David Seymour's bill in Parliament. Photo / screenshot

The North Shore MP’s approach to debating assisted dying is contentious.

Anyone who has followed the Justice select committee hearings into David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill or the debate around assisted dying generally will probably not be surprised that Maggie Barry — a staunch opponent of a law change — has been accused of bullying by three former parliamentary staff.

In September, former intensive care specialist and assisted dying campaigner Dr Jack Havill called for her to resign as deputy chair of the committee on the grounds she was “disparaging to submitters” who argued in favour of the bill.

Dr Havill said: “I do not maintain she should not have opinions against the bill, but the public expects her to act impartially in her role as deputy chair. Our opinion is she should resign from the position as deputy chair because she is heavily compromised.”

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Bets Blake, a retired palliative care nurse with 52 years’ experience, said making an oral submission was “traumatic”. She said Barry encouraged those opposing the bill and didn’t challenge any statistics they presented but when she gave her evidence in favour of the bill, Barry was dismissive.

Blake said that, near the end of her submission, Barry got up from her seat to get a refreshment. She said: “I felt she was dismissive of people who held an alternative view. I went back to my seat feeling upset and angry.”

Barry’s abrasive and rude behaviour when discussing assisted dying is not confined to select committee hearings, according to David Speary, who wrote to the North Shore Times in late September:

“Do not be dismissive of Jack Havill’s or Bets Blake’s claim about Maggie Barry’s attitude at the End of Life Choice hearings. I attended a ‘Community Conversation’ held by the [Catholic] church in Devonport earlier in this year, and was flabbergasted at Ms Barry’s actions.

“She was defending the Catholic church’s opposition to the bill against a lady from the End of Life Choice Society. She interrupted the EoLC speaker and, when it was her time, completely dominated the rest of the meeting. The chairman could hardly give anybody else a chance.

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“Maggie distorted statistics and overseas reports like they were ‘fake news’; and many people in the audience got upset at her references to killing people as if it would be indiscriminate elimination of mentally ill, physically handicapped, or the old and useless.”

Unfortunately, Barry’s position in the assisted dying debate often appears to be that of a zealot — possibly because of her connections to the Catholic church, even though she never acknowledges that as her motivation. Certainly, she wouldn’t answer my queries last year of whether Catholic beliefs informed her stance and whether she believed that “life is a gift given by God and it is a sin to interrupt its natural course.”

Catholics are entitled to their opinion as much as anyone else, of course, but it would be helpful if they acknowledged when their opposition is based on religious grounds. Anyone who believes life is a gift from God that can never be returned is clearly never going to accept any form of assisted dying no matter how much evidence is presented that shows it is safe and free of abuse.

Barry is an implacable foe of assisted dying who co-founded the Care Alliance in 2012 with John Kleinsman, a spokesman for the Catholic bishops, in order to oppose Maryan Street’s End of Life Choice Bill. She makes no secret of her staunch opposition to Seymour’s bill. In her speech at its first reading in Parliament in December 2017, she said: “I will never support this bill.” 

She insisted it was unsalvageable — “poorly crafted and drafted… It is irretrievable through the select committee process.”

It may surprise her, therefore, to find that in August a parliamentary cross-party committee in Western Australia put forward recommendations for legislation that are surprisingly similar to the criteria in Seymour’s bill.

Over 12 months, the committee thoroughly investigated assisted dying in several countries and concluded that those experiencing “grievous and irremediable suffering” from an “advanced and progressive” terminal, chronic or neurodegenerative condition should be allowed to self-administer a “lethal medication”. Or, a doctor should be able to help a patient who is physically unable to self-administer by assisting in administering the drugs. Death has to be a “reasonably foreseeable outcome” of the qualifying condition. 

The WA government intends to bring a bill before Parliament next year based on the report.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for opponents to deny the safety of assisted dying legislation as more and more jurisdictions around the world adopt it and evidence accumulates. As West Australian MP Amber-Jade Sanderson said after tabling the committee’s 600-page report: “Those who fundamentally oppose the introduction of voluntary assisted dying lack rigorous evidence to back up their claims.”

Perhaps that is why Barry and other opponents seem so willing to try to bulldoze the debate with highly emotive rhetoric. She has asserted, for instance, that the bill offers a “licence to kill” and she has referred to “doctors who dispense death”.

As a champion of improved palliative care, Barry notably doesn’t adopt these emotive phrases to describe doctors using terminal sedation that may speed the extinction of dying patients, nor when they give them a higher dose of morphine that has the effect of hastening death even if it is intended primarily for pain relief. Nor, for that matter, when they withdraw treatment, with or without a patient’s request.

In these situations, doctors already have a de facto “licence to kill”. Legalising assisted dying simply brings that component of end-of-life care out of the shadows and makes doctors publicly accountable for their actions.

Barry is so determined to swing the debate her way that she frequently bends the truth — as Speary described occurring at the Devonport meeting. In her parliamentary speech, Barry said the bill is “putting our medical practitioners in an absolutely impossible situation, which is why they’ve all objected so strongly. The New Zealand Medical Association, the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Medicine, nurses, geriatric medicine specialists — they’re all horrified by this bill and they’re on record with their objection on the basis that it is completely contrary to their code of ethics and relationship of trust with their patient.”

The repeated “all” in those two sentences is completely at odds with the facts. More than a third of doctors have been shown to support assisted dying and the NZMA represents only 20 per cent (or roughly 3000) of the nation’s 15,000 registered doctors. It admits its members have “a range of opinions”.

In total contradiction to Barry’s claim about nurses, the NZ Nurses Organisation (48,000 members) also acknowledges a variety of opinion. In January 2017, it put out a draft statement backing assisted dying but feedback from its members led to it adopting a neutral position.

NZNO policy analyst Leanne Manson told NOTED its stance had a particular emphasis on “protecting the interests of nurses” if assisted dying is introduced (which, the NZNO states, is “increasingly likely… given international trends”).

Although the NZNO position is neutral, a study published in June 2017 found that 67 per cent of nurses “strongly” or “mostly” agreed that assisted dying should be legalised in New Zealand, assuming there were appropriate guidelines and protocols.

In the same speech in Parliament, Barry also reckoned the law “should not be changed for a few persistent cases”.

As testimony from family and friends of dying patients has repeatedly shown during the assisted dying debate, many people die in severe distress or with uncontrollable symptoms — including with uncontrollable “breakthrough” pain.

It takes a particular kind of person to reduce that toll of suffering to a “few persistent cases”.