A crowd of around 400 people of all ages gathered in Orewa on August 21 to take part in a debate about the End of Life Choice Bill that is currently before parliament.
The Bill, sponsored by ACT leader David Seymour, seeks to establish a legal process by which people with a terminal illness or a grievous and irremediable medical condition could have the option of requesting assisted dying if they meet the requirements set out in the Bill.
Although the Orewa Arts & Events Centre was packed with people – including many who hold firm views on the subject – the debate was orderly and subdued, kept under control by MC Vernon Tava.
Promoting the Bill were David Seymour and former Labour MP Maryan Street. Opposed were GP Dr Stephen Child and North Shore MP Maggie Barry who, controversially, is also deputy chair of the Justice Select Committee that is currently hearing submissions on the Bill.
Rodney MP Mark Mitchell, who hosted the event and also sits on the Justice Select Committee, stayed out of the debate saying his vote would be in accordance with the wishes of a majority of his electorate. To help with this, audience members could indicate their views by placing a Yes/No/Undecided paper into a box. The result was close, with 105 voting for the Bill, 115 against and five undecided. Mr Mitchell continues to canvass the community and says this is just a very early indication and by no means final. Anyone can still make their views known through his Orewa office, and he welcomes the input.
During the hour when questions were taken from the floor, a Kerikeri resident called for a binding referendum, rather than reliance on the conscience votes of politicians. A show of hands on this option showed a clear majority in favour.
A 16-year-old Mahurangi College student was among those who wanted more clarity on the safeguards proposed in the Bill – a question that Dr Child said was “the crux of the entire conversation”.
Those opposed to the Bill are concerned that the lengthy list of safeguards, read to the crowd by Mr Seymour, do not adequately prevent the possibility of issues such as coercion of patients. Ms Barry went so far as to describe the Bill as “the ultimate elder abuse”.
Maryan Street said the issue is one of compassion for people who are dying, while those on the other side say that the care and medications provided by doctors and at hospices, as well as procedures or treatments that may be available in the future, address that pain and suffering.
Seventeen-year-old Orewa College prefect Reid Busby was one of a strong contingent of teenagers who attended the debate. He said he believes that people who are suffering should be able to choose an assisted death.
Also in the audience was retired Methodist Minister Dave Mullan of Red Beach, who has cancer and made a submission in favour of the Bill (HM February, 2016). He said last night’s debate broke no new ground.
“That’s the problem with the End of Life Choice discussion,” he said. “Both sides start from totally different understandings of the meaning of life, death, compassion, and, especially, palliative care. It’s great that there was such a good audience. I hope that many of them came without the strong prejudices held by some of us who have grappled with the issues for years. Perhaps those newbies can make more dispassionate evaluation of the issues on both sides. If that is taking place around our community, the meeting must be considered a success.”