COMMENT:

David Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill passed its first reading in Parliament by 76-44 but it is normal for a some MPs to vote for a private member's bill at its introduction just to see that it gets closer examination by a select committee.

The Justice Committee delivered its report this week after 15 months work dealing with nearly 40,000 submissions. The committee made a number of minor amendments to the bill but could not agree on whether it should proceed.

That, too, is normal procedure for bills that ought to be decided by a conscience vote of all MPs. The crucial vote may come within six weeks when Seymour moves the bill for a second reading. Seymour has already indicated that he will propose several amendments at a later stage to try to make the bill more palatable to enough members. He knows the bill would not get majority support as it stands.

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Crucially, one amendment will strictly limit the availability of euthanasia to the terminally ill and state that mental illness, age or disability alone cannot be grounds for it. That will replace the present wording which gives the choice of death also to people with "a grievous and irremediable medical condition". The definition of a grievous and irremediable medical condition could be very wide and put pressure on people who know their care is a burden to others.

But the removal of that criterion from the bill might not assuage those concerns. Opponents of euthanasia fear that once it becomes lawfully available to the terminally ill it will be hard to deny it to others who might be finding life too difficult. Advocates already argue that it should extend to them, and doubtless some MPs would prefer the bill as it is. Seymour is reckoning on those MPs supporting it even if it does not go as far as he and they would want.

Seymour could find himself in a position not unlike UK Prime Minister Theresa May over Brexit, with no majority for any option. Some MPs oppose euthanasia in principle, others may support it for the terminally ill only, others want it available more widely and yet a third group, mainly NZ First, want it to be decided by a referendum. He intends to also move an amendment to make the bill subject to a referendum.

Polls suggest euthanasia would easily pass a popular vote but, like Brexit, a referendum could create more problems than it solves. Decisions are usually best made by people who take the time and trouble to study all the implications and the practical difficulties.

This is not the first euthanasia bill to be put before Parliament. Several times, MPs have looked hard at the subject and backed away. It is a difficult subject. If euthanasia is confined to those in the final stages of terminal illness, it might not make much practical difference. Drugs already administered to them to alleviate pain can advance their death.

But if drugs can be administered for the sole purpose of ending life, a principle is established that may be hard to contain. MPs are facing an agonising decision and they are in the best position to make it an informed decision.