Euthanasia expert set to tour NZ, amid calls for a law change

Professor Jan Bernheim was invited from Belgium to New Zealand by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
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Professor Jan Bernheim was invited from Belgium to New Zealand by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

A prominent euthanasia advocate is set to tour the country, with a series of meetings planned in different cities over the next few weeks.

Professor Jan Bernheim believes New Zealand should adopt laws to give terminally ill patients the right to choose to end their own life.

Bernheim is an oncologist from Belgium, which legalised euthanasia in 2002 and is widely considered to have the most liberal assisted dying laws in the world.

ACT leader David Seymour believes New Zealand should pass legislation to allow for voluntary euthanasia.
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

ACT leader David Seymour believes New Zealand should pass legislation to allow for voluntary euthanasia.

He was one of the founders of palliative care group Not Necessarily Terminal, which pressed for the Belgian law change.

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Bernheim said people would choose to end their own lives regardless of whether it was legally permitted.

Wellington lawyer Lecrectia Seales campaigned for the right to end her own life before dying of cancer in 2015.
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Wellington lawyer Lecrectia Seales campaigned for the right to end her own life before dying of cancer in 2015.

He added that forcing euthanasia into the shadows meant it was uncontrolled and open to abuse.

"In Belgium we've put an end to the clandestine practice, and because of the openness of the whole process, abuse of the dying patient is much less probable now that it is legalised with strict controls," he said.

ACT leader David Seymour welcomed Bernheim's visit to New Zealand, and said he hoped it would help counter fear-mongering by anti-euthanasia campaigners.

"Hopefully getting someone to come from Belgium will scotch some of the misinformation that's out there," he said. "It will be good to have the real facts from the horse's mouth."

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Seymour is a supporter of euthanasia, and has a private member's bill in the ballot that would legally allow doctors to help patients end their own lives.

"People today have the option of refusing medical treatment, they have the option of refusing food and water, and they have the option of committing suicide so long as they do it alone with no-one helping them," he said.

"All of these options are available, and yet you don't have the option of making a decision about going on your terms to alleviate terrible suffering."

However Ken Orr, spokesperson for campaign group Right To Life, said legalising euthanasia would be a mistake.

"There's no dignity in being killed or murdered by your doctor," he said.

A recent review by the health select committee drew a record number of responses from the public, a majority of which were opposed to euthanasia.

"We're hopeful that the committee will bring down a report that emphatically rejects the idea of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia," Orr said.

However research published in January by the University of Auckland showed most Kiwis supported the legalisation of euthanasia.

Most Kiwis support the legalisation of euthanasia, according to research published by the University of Auckland in January.

n a survey of 15,822 people, 66 per cent supported euthanasia as a legal means of ending the lives of people with painful, incurable diseases.

The study found just 12 per cent were completely opposed to the legalisation of assisted dying.

There has been increased attention to the euthanasia debate following the death of Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales, who went to the High Court to fight for the right to end her own life as she suffered from terminal cancer.

Her legal battle was ultimately unsuccessful, and she died in June 2015.

Seales' husband Matt Vickers has since continued a campaign in her name to legalise euthanasia in New Zealand.

Prime Minister Bill English, a practising Catholic, is known to be opposed to euthanasia.

Bernheim suggested English look to his Catholic counterparts in Belgium to understand how euthanasia could be reconciled with religious belief.

"The Catholic order of congregation who run psychiatric care for a long time refused to allow euthanasia as part of their doctrine," Bernheim said. "They have now adopted it, seeing how the model works."

Bernheim was invited to New Zealand by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

He attended his first public meeting in Hamilton on Sunday, with further meetings planned in New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Napier, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, and Auckland.

 - Stuff

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