Street in fresh bid for right-to-die law

SARAH YOUNG
Last updated 12:30 10/03/2012

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A new bill on euthanasia may be too late for a Nelson woman suffering from a rare and fatal cancer, but her husband is supporting the proposal which could see both clinicians and family members protected from liability over a loved one's death.

Nelson-based Labour list MP Maryan Street plans to introduce an "end of life choice" private member's bill to Parliament in about a month's time.

The bill would make it legal for those diagnosed as terminally ill, and fully in control of their mental faculties, to choose to die, and for assisting clinicians or family members to be protected from liability.

It would also include the principle of advanced directive, so a person could make their wishes known before the advance of a terminal illness.

"It's where somebody knows what the prognosis is and it gets to a point of suffering that is unbearable.

"I don't want to go `incurable' because who knows, cures may be developed for things."

Nelson Exit International member Don Grant said that for him and his wife, Yoka De Houwer, who is suffering from a rare cancer, the new bill was a "long time coming".

The couple went public last year about Ms De Houwer's wish to have control over her own death.

She has been recently diagnosed with six months to live.

"We're really hoping we can get something done. It may not come in time for us, but we think if you're terminally ill in New Zealand you don't get good quality of life," Mr Grant said. "Often you starve to death because they remove food and fluids, and just drug you up with morphine until you waste away, and that can take more than a week. That's a horrible way to go.

"Yoka's already got her death planned.

"If things are not going to improve, then when she gets to that stage and she's in pain and she wants to go, and doesn't want anyone else there, she should be able to do that."

He said most people chose not to think about it, and generally buried their heads in the sand.

"All the time you think about quality of life, and I think you should think about quality of death. We're all going to face it."

Mr Grant encouraged people to talk to their MPs about the issue.

Ms Street said the person involved would be in charge of the decision, and protected by law so they could not be exploited by family members or insurance companies.

Clinicians would be required to attest a sound state of mind, and there would be rigid processes around how instructions were taken down and protected so relatives could not over-ride the dying person's wishes, she said.

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Attending clinicians would also be protected from liability, but assistance would not be compulsory and there would be some clinicians who "would never touch this with a barge pole because of their own religious convictions or ethics", she said.

Protecting family members from liability was probably the most different aspect of the bill compared with those which had gone before.

"If you've got a degenerative disorder, like motor neuron disease when you can't lift your hand to your mouth and the brain is still fully functioning ... it may be that you need to ask somebody close to you to do the unthinkable, and family members who do that need protection from liability because this is the last thing a family member wants to do in general."

Ms Street said she believed views in society had changed.

There had been a number of cases recently which had elicited sympathy from the public, such as Nelson residents Bob (Desmond) Jackson, 88, and his wife Betty, 84, who ended their lives together at home last August, and Sean Davison who last November was sentenced to five months' home detention for helping his mother die in Dunedin, she said.

This would be a conscience vote, rather than down party lines, she said.

Catholic Nelson GP Joseph Hassan said there was a clear difference between euthanasia, the deliberate ending of life, and stopping treatment, which may hasten the end of the patient's life, by doctors when this was a burden on the patient, he said.

Legalising euthanasia could also have a detrimental affect on the quality of palliative care, the breadth and width of which was improving all the time thanks to the good work done by the hospice movement, he said.

As a physician he would "certainly not want to be involved in taking someone's life deliberately."

"It's a slippery slope in many ways ... [with] potential implications of things like undisclosed conflicts of interest."

He said family and society needed to be protected from "that burden of responsibility".

"There's a lot of potential for guilt [for family members] at a later date.

"There's also the potential in the rare situation where there's not harmonious family relationships that there could be a vested interest in someone's life ending. It's a can of worms.

"Some things should be protected, and that should be the sanctity of life."

The bill will have to be chosen by a ballot system before it reaches the debating chamber.

American Yvonne Shaw, administrative director of Compassion and Choices of Oregon, will talk about how to change the law in New Zealand with end-of-life choices at a public meeting at 2.30pm on Sunday at Melrose House.

AT A GLANCE

The 1995 Death with Dignity Bill, led by Michael Laws, was the first formal attempt to promote legalised euthanasia in New Zealand. The bill was defeated by 61 votes to 29, with many abstentions. Another private member's bill was introduced in May 2003 by NZ First MP Peter Brown. This was narrowly defeated by 60 votes to 58 with one MP abstaining and one not voting. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Oregon and Washington in the United States. In 1996, Australia's Northern Territory introduced a voluntary euthanasia law. Four people used the law to die by injection administered using a computer, before the Australian Government in Canberra overturned the legislation in 1997.

- The Nelson Mail

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