Editorial: Euthanasia Memo to MPs: ‘Hard Cases Make Bad Law’

On Wednesday 13 November, David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill passed its final reading. This piece of legislation, which still requires a referendum to become law, is one of the most significant pieces of social policy to have been debated in New Zealand for some time.

Despite this fact, the overall quality of the 3rd reading speeches was severely lacking. While some reference was made to the medical, legal and other experts who contributed evidence to the Justice Select Committee Investigation, robust consideration of that evidence was notably absent. In the words of one acerbic tweeter: “NZ MPs vote the #euthanasia bill (EOLC) through tonight despite any number of warnings that it is a shonky, shoddy and dangerous piece of work. Deeply disappointed in all the MPs who were mired in their individualistic narratives.”

The case favouring euthanasia, when it is made, generally focuses on specific, individual hard cases. These stories are heart wrenching, difficult to tell and deserve to be told. There is a place for these “individualistic narratives” in the broader conversation about euthanasia, especially when they highlight a lack of quality end-of-life care. But there is more at stake when it comes to shaping law. As an ethicist, I have been surprised that so many MPs seem to think the presentation of one or more ‘hard cases’ is sufficient justification for supporting Seymour’s Bill. Have they forgotten the age-old maxim: ‘Hard cases make bad laws’?

When it comes to setting new public policy, my clear expectation is that MPs will focus assiduously on whether a Bill is fit for purpose. That is their job, one which requires them to set aside personal ideological motivations and move beyond personal anecdotes. Politics 101.

As former Prime Minister Sir Bill English articulated in an opinion piece published in the Dom Post (13 November): “It all comes down to deciding whether the bill, with its changes, will ultimately deliver what it says. My position on euthanasia is well known. I have spoken many times about why I am opposed in principle. But to my former colleagues I say, even if you agree in principle, this is not the bill to deliver euthanasia and assisted suicide to New Zealanders.”

Chris Penk was one of the few MPs to articulate his awareness of the parliamentary task: “The first [question] is not whether some people should die in a way that the bill allows, but whether any people could die in a way that the bill does not allow. Put another way, the question is not whether it is possible to imagine whether a person who is competent, in good mental health, has a supportive family, and whose first language is English ... might be able to make a choice and not be bullied into an early grave but ... what is the number of vulnerable New Zealanders who may EDITORIAL be coerced to exercise the so-called choice, absent other choices? A further question might be not whether the Bill is better than it was before – less dangerous, in other words – but whether it is good enough now.”

Answering the question about whether a bill is “good enough now” is a complex exercise which, above all, requires a willingness to engage with the evidence. And, as any researcher knows, that also means avoiding vague assertions. Again, that is another clear expectation I have of MPs. And again, I feel let down by many MPs response to the End of Life Choice Bill, including David Seymour, who has persistently refused to engage with the evidence.

For example, responding to a recent and detailed 10 page letter from 21 mental health experts and researchers (university academics, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health workers) which carefully lays out the statistical evidence pointing to a potential link between suicide rates and an increase in the numbers of people dying by euthanasia or assisted suicide – a serious issue in a country with epidemic suicide numbers – Seymour’s only comment was to attack the integrity of the writers: “To see people in the Herald this morning saying that there is ‘suggested evidence’, well, I’ve heard that academic standards are falling, but suggestive evidence is a new low.”

Then, dismissing the argument as “frankly disgraceful”, Seymour concludes “there is no connection between legalised assisted dying and suicide anywhere.” But why, I ask, would anyone believe any MP over the claims of 21 experts who conclude their letter by stating that “it cannot be categorically stated that legalising assisted dying in New Zealand will not further exacerbate our rates of (non-assisted) suicide over time” and who are also witnessing evidence of a connection in their clinical work? A serious question needs to be treated seriously!

As we move towards a referendum on euthanasia, my sincere hope is that the public will show a greater willingness than Seymour to consider whether his Bill will, in real life, protect our most vulnerable elderly and disabled citizens. To everyone I say: ‘Look directly at what the experts have said yourselves, rather than be lulled by vacuous assertions from politicians which deny, defer and/or deflect attention from the evidence’.

Dr John Kleinsman is director of The Nathaniel Centre