The first Death with Dignity Bill

Moves to legalise Euthanasia commenced in 1995 following Australia's Northern Territory legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, which was later overturned by the Federal Government.

  • Michael Laws' "Death with Dignity Bill" was the first major effort in NZ to promote legalised Euthanasia.
  • The Bill was jointly drafted by former MP Cam Campion, who was dying of cancer.
  • Laws electorate was asked "Should euthanasia be permitted for a person who is terminally ill and has given their prior consent?"
  • Opponents said the positive response might have been different if the question had been phrased differently.
  • Laws indicated on television that the Law could also be applied to disabled children.
  • Some MPs were concerned about pressure being put on the elderly and disabled to choose death.
  • One MP warned of voluntary euthanasia evolving in time to full, involuntary euthanasia in the Netherlands..
  • The Bill was defeated by 61 votes to 29, with many abstentions." revisited !!
1995 was the year when voluntary euthanasia generated much public debate, first in Australia and then New Zealand.

On May 25, the Australian Northern Territory parliament passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill, permitting voluntary euthanasia in the state. It was later overruled by the Federal Government.

Inspired by the Northern Territory Act, Michael Laws, then the National MP for Hawkes Bay, launched his own "Death with Dignity" Bill. It was assumed by the Bill's opponents that Michael Laws was earlier collaborating with the NZ Humanist Association and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, but as Jack Jones reveals in his interview, they offered support only when Law's Private Member's Bill surfaced.

The "Death with Dignity" Bill was jointly drafted by former MP Cam Campion, who was dying of cancer. Campion was the MP for Wanganui.

Michael Laws questions his electorate
In June 1995, Laws sought to seek his Hawkes Bay constituents' views on a range of issues. Entitled "Hawkes Bay Referendum 1995", one of the questions read: "Should euthanasia be permitted for a person who is terminally ill and has given their prior consent?"

Laws claimed that 13,300 adult constituents voted on that question, representing 57% of the electorate. The results were: Yes, 10,528 (79%); No, 2,803 (21%). (NZ Herald, 25th July, 1995)

Clearly this result was "an overwhelming endorsement for the concept of euthanasia," he responded.

If the total electorate is considered: 45% voted Yes, 12% voted No, and 43% did not respond or were undecided.

Law's critics argued that people still didn't know a great deal about the complex issues involved with euthanasia. If the referendum question had been phrased: "do you agree with killing people mercifully, if they so wish", the response might have been different.

The Death with Dignity Bill
On the evening of 2nd August, 1995, MP Michael Laws went on the Paul Holmes Show to talk about his Death with Dignity bill. Later that night, he would seek leave to introduce his bill into the House.

Live on television, Laws read out a letter from a women with a disabled boy, who wondered hopefully if the law could apply to him. Laws indicated his agreement - and then later that night had to endure the protests of shocked MPs and the dismissal of his bill.

The New Zealand public might consider euthanasia for the terminally ill and elderly, but not for children or adolescents. That is a common perception worldwide, but the reality is that some advocates for euthanasia do consider children eligible, and this is reflected in medical practice and changes to the law.

The "terminally ill" were those who have a disease which will result in their death (no time limit within which death was anticipated).

The "incurably ill" were those whose "quality of life" was seriously impaired by their illness.

To give voters the opportunity to have their say, the Bill could only become law, after a binding nationwide referendum to be held at the next 1996 General Election.

Laws put his case to the House and the quotes are from Hansard, the official record of the debate:

  • "This Bill is about giving an individual who may be terminally or incurably ill, or who has made an advanced directive (Living Will) should certain mental incapacity occur, the final and only choice about his or her life and death."
  • "Only the patient can activate this Bill, should it become law, and no one else; not medical staff, not relatives, not friends ? just the patient. The patient must be an adult aged 18 years or over, and of a fit mental state."
  • "Ultimately, opponents of voluntary euthanasia are driven by their very fear of that individuality. They are scared of people exercising their own judgment, and scared of any morality that is different from their own. Mostly they are terrified of the New Zealand public on this issue. They know that if this Parliament passes this Bill, then it will allow all New Zealanders, by way of a binding referendum at the next general election, to approve or disapprove of the concept of voluntary euthanasia. It is called democracy, and that very word is anathema to those who seek to impose their moral views on us all."
  • "This provision largely deals with those who have a severe or degenerative brain disease, for example Alzheimer's disease or senile dementia, and who have clearly stated that if they are reduced to that mental state, then their option to die with dignity should be exercised. It also deals with those who are turned into virtual vegetables be a severe and irreversible accident to the brain, for example from a car accident."
  • The key feature of this clause, like all others in this Bill, is that the individual must have made his or her wish explicit, whilst in a fit mental state, and must have had that directive witnessed and confirmed by others. The patient must go through a number of steps before he or she can be prescribed a lethal mixture of drugs for self-administration, or injection. Those steps include, No 1, a written request to the attending doctor, who must inform that patient of all available alternatives, including pain control and hospice care. No 2 is that a second medical opinion must be received as to the patient's diagnosis and prognosis, and, again, the alternative treatments available."
  • "No 3 is that a psychiatric examination must then be undertaken to ensure the patient is of a fit mental state and suffers from no mental disorder such as clinical depression. There will be a statutory cooling-off period of 48 hours at least, to allow the patient to reconsider and to reflect upon the original request and whether he or she wishes it to be activated."
  • "There are other safeguards in this Bill. If at any time any one of those two doctors - either the attending medical practitioner, or the consulting medical practitioner - or if at any time the psychiatrist or the counsellor suspect that ?undue pressure and influence' have been placed upon that individual, then the request is void. It cannot be activated."
  • "I reject most strongly that this Bill is unchristian or immoral. That is a criticism I have heard from certain religious leaders in the last wee while. Indeed, I would argue exactly the reverse, because I believe that is both Christian and moral. It provides nothing more than a humane, compassionate and considered alternative for persons awaiting the inevitability of death."
MPs response to his speech

John Banks (then Minister of Tourism)
"It must be stopped, because ethically it has the potential to corrupt the legal system, the family and give doctors licence to kill." He referred in detail to the Netherlands and advances in palliative care.

Lianne Dalziel (Christchurch Central)
Wanted the Bill to go to a select committee for public consideration. Expressed concern about the risks of subtle pressures on the elderly to die: "the economic pressures confronted by a lot of older New Zealanders may mean that they choose death, rather than impose social and financial burdens upon their relatives." Also concerned about the disabled being made to feel a burden on society.

Wyatt Creech (then Minister of Employment)
Concerned about the name of the Bill "Death with Dignity" being attractive and skewering the debate. Legislation should be judged by its content, rather by its name. Public debate would be fairer if the Bill was named the "Voluntary Euthanasia Bill". Against the principles involved in the Bill and therefore against its introduction.

Jim Sutton(Timaru)
Found the title of the Bill "utterly misleading". Warned about the "hideous choices", "I do not want any older people feeling guilty; feeling that they are letting their loved ones down by staying alive once they are in need of expensive or long-term care. The price of this Bill in moral terms is too high for me."

Graeme Lee(Matakana)
"Whenever a law of this type is implemented, it is inevitable that there will be pressure to extend it." He referred to Holland and voluntary euthanasia evolving in time to full, involuntary euthanasia.

The Bill was eventually defeated by 61 votes to 29, with many abstentions.