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.

The Dominion Post - - Politics -

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’’.

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