Throughout this term of Parliament it has been my privilege to serve as chair of the health committee. Over the last two years, it has been my responsibility to lead the inquiry into assisted suicide and euthanasia as requested by a petition to Parliament.
I led a group of dedicated MPs from a cross-section of parties in listening to what New Zealanders had to say about this difficult but important subject. I felt it was essential that I maintained an unbiased, even-handed process, though I made no secret of my own personal concerns about the topic.
From the outset, I believed it was important for all those concerned to know my opinion so that they could watch me and ensure that I behaved in a fair manner towards all sides and I have appreciated the statements by MPs and by the petitioner acknowledging my professional impartiality.
Over 21,000 New Zealanders wrote to the committee with their own thoughts on assisted dying and euthanasia. Of those, 944 people spoke to us in person over 108 hours of hearings. This inquiry was the largest ever undertaken by a New Zealand Parliament and was the largest, most public discussion ever held on this topic.
Now that the investigation is complete, now that all of the submitters have been heard, and the report has been written by the health committee as a whole, I feel I can finally say a few words myself.
Before entering Parliament I spent years studying ethics and philosophy at university, particularly around human rights. Some might see these fields as impractical but they prepared me well for this investigation. My extensive readings, lectures, and discussions formed the basis of my objection to assisted suicide.
I entered this investigation willing to hear evidence from all sides and was prepared to consider new arguments if they were presented. Unfortunately, the arguments in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia are not terribly well-reasoned. They rely heavily on emotional experiences and intense ideologies. These are not the best foundations for building laws, but they are important and they do deserve to be heard.
In nearly 10 years training to be a priest I attended the deaths of many people. I have been there for those who were dying and for those who were left behind. I have grappled with difficult moral dilemmas and heart-wrenching scenes of bereavement. I have also been fortunate to witness great acts of selflessness and kindness towards those dying, and to see the value in people even though their lives are coming to an end.
I recognise that some people believe assisted suicide and euthanasia are a right, that it is a matter of self-determination and personal autonomy. However, New Zealand is not four million people living isolated from one another, but a broad inclusive society. The actions taken by each member of society affect the lives of others around them.
One person's suicide affects many other people, some directly and many more indirectly. It makes a statement about one's own sense of self-worth but it also makes an explicit statement about the worth of others living with the same or similar condition. For example, one person's preference for death over life in a wheelchair will affect the lives and perceived worth of others who rely on wheelchairs.
What started with good intentions and the pursuit of autonomy will have widespread ramifications and some of the most vulnerable people in our society already struggle to be heard.
Ultimately, if assisted suicide and euthanasia is a personal choice, as proponents argue, then it is rather hard to put limits on the practice without being discriminatory. As the committee observed with overseas experience, once assisted suicide and euthanasia is enacted there is the slow but predictable broadening of access. It quickly ceases to be for terminal illness and becomes permissible for any form of pain.
Overseas jurisdictions have seen people seeking to end their lives for a variety of reasons, including depression, being abused, and being tired of life. It has also seen the expansion of guidelines to permit children to end their lives. These overseas jurisdictions tried to incorporate safeguards, but the only fool-proof way to protect everyone is to ensure that assisted dying and euthanasia are never made legal.
The vast majority of New Zealanders would agree that suicide is never the correct response to a problem, no matter how great that problem may be. It is always a tragedy. This country has made great efforts to reduce the suicide rate, but there is still more that must be done.
I believe it would send a very dangerous signal to say that some suicides are acceptable, even commendable, while others should be prevented. Depression, fear, and panic are common reactions to many challenges in life. Whether one is facing a terminal illness, the end of a marriage, the loss of a job or suffering through abuse, the way in which such challenges are faced sends a signal to others. Working through them strengthens others who are facing their own problems, it improves their lives, and contributes to a better society.
Whatever your view on assisted suicide and euthanasia, I would like to encourage everyone to read the report of the health committee. This topic is very complicated and deserves more than a quick headline.
- Simon O'Connor is National MP for Tamaki and chaired Parliament's health select committee which has recommended no action be taken on the petition of Maryan Street and 8,974 others to allow medically-assisted dying in the event of terminal illness or unbearable suffering.