National Portrait: Maryan Street, the campaigner

Maryan Street once planned to become a Presbyterian minister. Now she says religion has no place in deciding the law on ...
ROSS GIBLIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Maryan Street once planned to become a Presbyterian minister. Now she says religion has no place in deciding the law on how New Zealanders can die.

Eleven years ago, Maryan Street watched her sister die from motor neurone disease.

It is, she says, "one of the unkindest – unkindest – terminal illnesses".

"God knows it's not a competition. But it's a ghastly, ghastly illness. She was five and a bit years from diagnosis to death."

Two decades before that, she saw her mother die from bowel cancer at 65 – an age, she points out, "I'm rapidly approaching".

Neither ever spoke to her about wanting to die. She is sure her sister must have thought about it, but never told those closest to her. Her mother, on the other hand, was too angry about her life being cut short to want to shorten it any further.

"She was furious," the former Labour MP says, with a dry laugh.

Neither woman, she thinks, would have made use of the law change that Street has spent the past four years campaigning for – one that would allow assisted dying for those with a terminal illness or an "unbearable" condition.

Yet their experiences shaped her deeply and helped forge her own position on the issue.

It was later than that, however, that she decided to take up the public fight. And the cause wasn't personal, but something far more ordinary for an MP: a meeting called by Nelson euthanasia advocates before the 2011 election. It was life-changing, she says.

"They had very articulate, thoughtful people there who really challenged me to pick up the issue. And I decided to rise to the challenge – I said yes, I would champion that cause."

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Now Street, 61, is two years out of Parliament, but the campaign has not subsided. Labour leader Andrew Little had her End of Life Choice bill dropped from Parliament's ballot – but a "disappointed" Street found another ally in ACT leader David Seymour, who put his own, similar version in.

The Government has shown no willingness to introduce such a law, but Street took an 8,974-strong petition to the health select committee, which has spent the year slowly getting into an inquiry on the subject.

These moves, together with the court case of Wellington lawyer Lecretia Seales, a controversial police campaign targeting euthanasia advocates, and the confronting, emotional testimony given by ordinary people to the select committee, have combined to see the euthanasia debate flare into life in a way that it hasn't in New Zealand for many years.

Street is proud of that, and of her ability to find the "pressure points" in Parliament, even from the outside.

In her four years of campaigning, she's been struck by what she calls the deep, diverse popularity of the cause.

"There are nurses in favour, nurses against, doctors in favour, doctors against, Maori in favour, Maori against, Asian in favour, Asian against, Pasifika – 61 and a half per cent in favour, in 2012 – who would have thought? That surprised me. So it doesn't matter which way you slice the population, there are rarely groups that have a monolithic view on this."

Street is serious, intellectual, careful, private – but she breaks into tears recalling some of the stories she has grappled with over that time, which she says continue to move and distress her, like Dunedin doctor Pat Davison, who tried to starve herself to death and was still alive 31 days later, or the Christchurch man who "pleaded with MPs to do something, so that he doesn't have to do what men often do, and that's resort to very violent means. And it's horrible for everybody".

"What confounds me is the lack of compassion. Why would you insist, because the law is old-fashioned and now not fit for purpose, why would you insist that people must suffer?"

Street thinks the current Parliament would probably pass Seymour's bill if it were drawn from the ballot, though MPs would need to steel themselves for "strong lobbying by their constituents".

The Catholic Church is one particularly strong opponent, she says. "I don't want to say [it's] a Catholic fundamentalism, but it is that very doctrinaire Catholicism that opposes this agenda internationally".

Which is not to say that Street is straightforwardly anti-religious. In fact, after growing up in a Presbyterian Taranaki household, she came to Wellington as a student in the 1970s planning to be a church minister.

She studied with Lloyd Geering at Victoria University – "just an absolutely wonderful teacher", she says – and "sang and carried on" as a Christian, but then she changed her mind. She still has "enormous" respect for religious traditions, she says, but they aren't for her.

"It just didn't stack up intellectually for me anymore. So I gave it up. But I've read the book."

And what of the practical objection to a law change – that it might ease the way for people to put very subtle pressure on the sick and elderly to take their own lives?

Street says any law must have safeguards, and meaningful, regular monitoring, but no law can defend against all abuse.

"In the end, what stops bad behaviour? Laws don't. Asking for complete protection against the worst of human behaviour, in a law, is unreasonable."

Street is no stranger to a fight. She is a long-time union leader, and has returned to employment relations work since her exit from politics. In 2005, she became New Zealand's first openly-identified lesbian MP elected to Parliament, and spoke of having been marginalised and belittled for her sexuality.

She agrees that the past decade or so has been a watershed time for gay rights, and draws a connection between that fight and the one that currently occupies her.

The battle to ensure minority rights is never over, she says – it needs constant vigilance, even after successes.

"This right to choose your moment to die is my next frontier, because I think it is a human right. In a developed and conscious democracy like ours, it is a human right."

 - The Dominion Post

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