Editorial: MPs should decide on euthanasia

Such a profound social change as legalising euthanasia needs to be decided by MPs, not judges.

Such a profound social change as legalising euthanasia needs to be decided by MPs, not judges.


Parliament needs to decide what to do about euthanasia, not the courts.

The case of Wellington woman Lecretia Seales, as powerful and affecting as it has been, makes this clear. Seales, 42, who has been suffering from a terminal brain tumour, asked the High Court to clarify the law to give her the option of having her doctor help her to die.

By Sunday night, Seales was extremely sick, her husband reported. If Justice David Collins issues his judgment in time, and agrees with her case, it will be a watershed ruling and the culmination of a courageous campaign. Yet it could also set a precedent for other assisted-dying cases around the country, which is a problem.

Seales' situation is enormously sad, and her team's legal arguments are clever, but the idea that such a profound social change should be ushered in by the courts is wrong.

MPs have explicitly considered euthanasia twice in the past 20 years – both times voting it down. To allow it by court ruling would be to ignore these decisions. True, that is not the whole story. In 1995, the vote was 61-29 against former MP Michael Laws' Death with Dignity Bill. By 2003, the vote was 60 to 58 the same way. Clearly the ground has been moving.

Meanwhile, surveys have suggested public support for legalising euthanasia. And, as Seales' lawyers have argued, courts and governments overseas have also increasingly cleared the way for assisted suicide.

Most dramatically, Canada's Supreme Court found earlier this year that the country's ban on euthanasia breached its charter, its highest law. Yet it does not follow that the New Zealand court should do the same. New Zealand's Bill of Rights Act, which Seales' team has invoked, is similar to the Canadian charter, but it does not enjoy the same constitutional status.

Our history is overwhelmingly one of social change effected through Parliament. It generally works well – when the public moves far enough, MPs eventually respond.

And this is the way it must be in a democracy. Ultimately the representatives have to be the ones making fundamental social changes, even those which affect vulnerable minorities. It is the best way to build sustainable change.

Whatever happens in this case, Parliament should take up the question again. The law has to be explicit about this. (Even if Seales' case is successful, the practice will surely need urgent legislative safeguards).

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It was a shame that Labour dropped its private member's bill on the subject last year. But the Government can introduce such legislation itself and it should – Seales' case makes it obvious that the issue is pressing, and the country needs to have the debate again.

Yes, it would still be divisive  – the issue is a hugely vexing one. The most chilling fear is elderly people feeling pressed, however subtly, into ending their lives. But personal autonomy and the alleviation of desperate suffering weigh heavily for the other side.

This Government has not often waded into controversial social reforms, in contrast to its predecessor. It should make this debate an exception.

 - The Dominion Post

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