Assisted dying: let the debate begin
Matt Vickers is a widower on a mission as he returns to the city where his wife lived and died, reports Jo Moir.
Wellington was home for Matt Vickers for a long time – it’s also where his love and memories of his late wife Lecretia Seales live on.
It’s in New York that Vickers, 39, has found some ‘‘distraction’’ and a chance to start again – he’s the first to admit that returning this week will reopen a lot of old wounds.
Seales died from cancer in June last year after a long battle with cancer that ran hand-in-hand with a courageous fight to win the right to choose to end her own life. Hours before she took her last breath she learnt her legal battle had failed.
On Wednesday Vickers will be the first of 1800 people to speak to a parliamentary inquiry into euthanasia, instigated by a petition in the name of former Labour MP Maryan Street and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
The petition, which garnered 8795 signatures and cross-party support, came after Seales death.
It demanded the committee examine public opinion on the introduction of legislation ‘‘which would permit medically assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or an irreversible condition which makes life unbearable’’.
More than 21,000 submissions later, the most ever received by any select committee, Vickers will pull up a seat at 8am in front of a panel of MPs to explain Lecretia’s story. ‘‘Lecretia was very strong in wanting a choice, that wasn’t a weakness of character. She wanted to be able to exercise her strength by having a choice,’’ he said. The submission process is an opportunity for the country to ‘‘honestly and unashamedly talk about the end of our lives without fear’’. Vickers hasn’t worked out exactly what he’s going to say to the committee yet – finding the right words is still proving a bit of a mission. ‘‘Living overseas, she isn’t as absent to me – it’s like she’s just in another place – but I know I’ll feel her absence much more strongly being back in Wellington.’’ Seales was undoubtedly the driver of the inquiry under way today – there has previously been two bills in Parliament but both failed to get across the line. Former New Zealand First MP Peter Brown, who watched his wife die of cancer, drafted a Death with Dignity Bill in 2003. A previous bill in 1995, championed by then-National MP for Hawke’s Bay Michael Laws, also failed. Thirteen years on, ACT leader David Seymour drafted a member’s bill and added it to the lucky draw that is the ‘‘biscuit tin’’ members’ ballot in October.
While in Wellington, Vickers will also launch his book, Lecretia’s Choice, and already one member of the select committee intends to read it – chairman and National MP Simon O’Connor.
The Tamaki MP is Catholic and spent almost a decade studying for the priesthood with the Society of Mary before deciding he couldn’t be a politico and a cleric.
Vickers, much like Street and Seymour, is concerned about O’Connor chairing the committee – all three question how someone publicly opposed to euthanasia can chair an inquiry into it.
In saying that, Vickers says O’Connor has a job to do and the expectation is that he’ll be ‘‘capable of wearing two hats’’.
‘‘You just have to trust that they’ll all do their jobs.’’
O’Connor says he’s ‘‘incredibly relaxed’’ about chairing the committee.
The committee doesn’t get a breakdown of how many submissions are for and against euthanasia, which means it’s about ‘‘listening to discussion from both sides’’. But Street, who previously had her own private member’s bill in the ballot, which fell by the wayside when she failed to return to Parliament, says O’Connor has a lot to prove given he’s ‘‘nailed his colours to the mast’’.
‘‘He has got to deliver a balanced report that reflects what has been heard ... it’s not going to be easy, it will be challenging for him.’’
Seymour says O’Connor should apologise before oral submissions kick off on Wednesday for ‘‘soliciting submissions from a certain point of view which happens to coincide with his own beliefs’’.
‘‘If you look at the way Simon’s behaved you’ve got to be pretty concerned ... it’s really quite shameful given you get paid an extra $20,000 to be a chair.
‘‘He’s got every incentive, he’s an ambitious guy like most people in Parliament, and if he wants to be a minister one day then he has to actually play a straight bat and be seen to play a straight bat.’’
National MP Chris Bishop stood alongside Seymour, Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway and Green MP Kevin Hague when Parliament received Street’s petition in June. Bishop supports the inquiry and Seymour’s bill and says while O’Connor chairs the committee, ‘‘he’s not doing the whole inquiry – he’s only one person’’.
Even Prime Minister John Key supports euthanasia and Seymour’s bill and said the select committee inquiry was proof ‘‘it’s quite possible without a bill being in Parliament to have a good and open discussion about the issue’’.
According to Seymour, every government is reluctant to pick up controversial issues and this National government isn’t alone – homosexual law reform, abortion law and marriage equality also came out of members’ bills.
‘‘All governments have been cowardly on controversial issues, not just this one.’’
He also blames several senior ministers being strongly opposed to euthanasia for blocking it. ‘‘There’s just so much scaremongering that doesn’t stand up to evidence.’’
But Amanda Landers, a clinician consultant, researcher and chair of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Palliative Care, has spent 10 years caring for those who are terminally ill and she sees it differently.
‘‘In the last decade I’ve witnessed about 5000 deaths and what you hear from the media and public isn’t what you hear from most people at the end of their life, it’s almost in direct contrast,’’ she says.
‘‘The voice of the well are the people who say, my body, my choice,’’ she says.
When people are dying, it’s their family, pets and community they worry about – ‘‘they think less and less about themselves’’.
‘‘The voice of the well are the people who say, my body, my choice.’’ Palliative care researcher Amanda Landers
Matt Vickers hopes select committee chairman Simon O’Connor will be impartial despite his personal views.
Lucretia Seales ‘‘wanted to be able to exercise her strength by having a choice’’.