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MPs opposed to euthanasia will be uncomfortable this year

 Graham Adams tried to nail down his local MP, Maggie Barry, about whether she would vote against the bill, even if a majority of her constituents wanted it. Photo / Getty Images

The latest nationwide poll shows support for euthanasia at 75 per cent. How will politicians justify voting against David Seymour’s bill?

For anyone interested in the assisted dying debate, the next year is shaping up to be a watershed, both here and in Australia. Parliaments in both Victoria and NSW are drafting voluntary euthanasia legalisation, with one or the other likely to become the first state to authorise it.

In New Zealand, the most significant development is that David Seymour’s End of Life Choice bill was drawn from the ballot on June 8. This means Parliament, which has long done everything it can to avoid discussing the topic, will have to decide in a conscience vote — possibly before the general election — whether to send it on to a select committee for discussion.

Second, the Health select committee’s report sparked by Lecretia Seales’ High Court case in 2015 will be presented during the term of the current Parliament. The report has been two years in the making — including hearing in person all 1800 submitters who wanted to be heard. Simon O’Connor, the committee chair, told Noted he hoped to have “everything wrapped up before Parliament rises” on August 17.

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Over the coming year, MPs are going to have to nail their colours to the mast on what is usually described as a contentious topic, although that is a bizarre description when 75 per cent of voters in the latest major poll were in favour of a law change. What is actually contentious — and scandalous in a democracy — is the fact successive governments have bowed to a vociferous minority for so long. Polls for more than 20 years have shown a clear majority in favour of change.

Laws shouldn’t, of course, be based entirely on public opinion — and especially not in reaction to some passing swell of concern — but assisted dying is clearly what a majority of New Zealanders have wanted for a long time.

Furthermore, there is now plenty of evidence available from states in the US, Canada and Europe to show that the fears opponents raise of abuse of the vulnerable and of a slippery slope are unfounded.

A Horizon poll, published in late June, showed the strength of approval for a law change. Support for medical assistance to die for those suffering from end-stage terminal illness and irreversible unbearable suffering was 75 per cent overall, with only 11 per cent opposed.

Support was also very strong for medical assistance to die for people who had irreversible conditions, such as motor neurone disease, which may not cause death in the immediate future, with 66 per cent in favour and 15 per cent opposed or strongly opposed.

In response to the poll results, Act MP David Seymour said: “Members of Parliament who oppose assisted dying must explain how they can vote against the wishes of those who elect them and pay their salaries” — a position which seems eminently reasonable and democratic.

So I thought I’d ask my local North Shore MP, Maggie Barry, to explain how she might reconcile her personal views with those of her electorate, given that she is well known to be a vocal opponent of assisted dying.

My interest had been piqued a few days earlier when I had read Wayne Mapp’s account of voting against Peter Brown’s Death with Dignity bill in 2003.

Mapp was the MP for North Shore before Maggie Barry and, in comments on a Kiwiblog post in June, he recounted that, “When this issue last came up [in 2003], I voted in accordance with the views of the electorate as expressed by the hundreds of letters and emails with a North Shore source that came into the office. They were 70 per cent opposed.

“A few months later (after the parliamentary vote), I did a proper scientific opinion poll of the electorate since I suspected the mood was changing. The result was the reverse with 70 per cent in favour.”

Mapp took the survey because he twigged that the initial wave of letters and emails represented a campaign by a minority of opponents and suspected they didn’t represent the wishes of the majority, as he belatedly discovered to be the case.

It has been more than a decade since Mapp’s survey, but support for assisted dying has increased substantially since then, so it is reasonable to assume that it is still high on the North Shore — including among National Party voters who elected Barry in droves. Her majority in 2014 was a whopping 16,503.

The Horizon poll showed 83 per cent of National voters nationwide were in favour for those suffering end-stage terminal illness. Labour voters were close behind with 82 per cent support, followed by 77 per cent of Green voters, 71 per cent of Act voters, 69 per cent of NZ First voters, and 66 per cent of Maori Party voters. There was also majority support across all age groups.

I then read a Fairfax article that mentioned Barry had attended a meeting in the Auckland suburb of Takapuna which said that, although “she was inclined to vote against [David Seymour’s] bill, she wanted to know what constituents thought”.

A Herald survey of how MPs intended to vote on David Seymour’s bill had placed Barry in the “no” camp but the Fairfax article seemed to indicate she might be willing to change her mind if enough North Shore voters were in favour.

I emailed Barry to ask whether, in light of the article, she would vote for Seymour’s bill “if a clear majority of North Shore voters were in favour”.

Via a spokeswoman, Barry declared herself to be “not in favour of assisted suicide/euthanasia”, that she would vote according to her conscience, and would not vote for Seymour’s bill because it didn’t have enough safeguards for the vulnerable — as, indeed, she asserted, is the case in all jurisdictions around the world that have legalised assisted dying.

I then asked: “I assume I can conclude that there is no assisted dying bill that you would vote for, no matter how many North Shore voters were found to be in favour?”

Her assistant replied: “The minister would assess each bill on its merits and would consult accordingly — one day there might be proposed legislation that safeguards the vulnerable but David Seymour’s member’s bill does not.”

I wanted to know: “What safeguards would Barry consider sufficient to protect the vulnerable?”

Assistant: “She isn’t in favour of assisted suicide/euthanasia but she can still consult on other bills that may come along to see if constituents think there are enough safeguards in it.”

Again that seemed to imply that Barry might vote for a bill yet to be written and that she might be guided by voters’ wishes. So I asked: “If it was shown to her that constituents approved of a bill and thought the safeguards were sufficient, would she vote for it?”

I guessed Barry wouldn’t answer that question, and she didn’t — even when I repeated it in a follow-up email.

It seems, unfortunately, that her claim of “consulting” voters is a sham. Which is unsurprising given that in 2012 she helped set up the Care Alliance (chaired by John Kleinsman from the Nathaniel Centre, the mouthpiece for Catholic bishops) to oppose Labour MP Maryan Street’s End of Life Choices bill. Barry was reported in the NZ Catholic newspaper warning how close the vote for Street’s bill might be, adding: “We all need to be geared up to talk to people about the issue and really make them think about the sanctity and quality of life.

“My conscience,” she said, “will absolutely determine that I will not vote in favour of any bill that would bring about legalised euthanasia.”

It’s a pity she isn’t as forthright now. Why doesn’t she make it crystal clear to voters before September’s election that she is not for turning on assisted dying, no matter what her constituents want?

The only possible answer is that she wants to appear to be listening, even though her mind was made up a long time ago.

I was also interested in finding out how much her opinion is influenced by her Catholic faith. If someone’s views are largely determined by religious belief, consultation of any kind is pointless because they are never going to change their mind, no matter what evidence is presented.

The last question I asked Barry’s assistant was: “Perhaps you could also ask the minister if her Catholic beliefs will inform her conscience vote. Specifically, ‘Does she believe that life is a gift given by God and it is a sin to interrupt its natural course?’”

I didn’t get an answer.

In the aftermath of David Seymour’s bill being drawn, Maryan Street said that politicians are going to have to have some uncomfortable conversations around assisted dying.

I think Maggie Barry and I just had one.

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