Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC has offered a plan to change the New Zealand law to legalise euthanasia in certain instances for terminally ill people.
Speaking to the Parliament in a lecture in memory of New Zealand lawyer Lecretia Seales, Palmer proposed that the Family Court have final say on whether assisted death is allowed depending on seven conditions that must be met.
Seales – who worked with Palmer at the Law Commission and then at the law firm Chen, Palmer and Partners – mounted a bid at the High Court to allow her doctors to help her to die.
She passed away last year after a debilitating four years battling brain cancer with her case failing in court.
Palmer noted that though Seales did not win her case, it and the evidence has opened the discussion of the issue.
“Death is inevitable. By making this suggested exception to the general principle we would be respecting life. And such a measure would not be a slippery slope toward some ambiguous twilight zone,” he said.
The former president of the Law Commission proposed that an exception should be enacted in the Crimes Act if the following conditions are met:
- the person is of at least 18 years of age and capable of making decisions;
- the person is a permanent resident of New Zealand;
- the person has consented in writing to receive such assistance before two independent witnesses;
- two medical practitioners have certified that the person has a grievous and incurable medical condition;
- the medical condition is causing enduring suffering that is intolerable to the person in his or her circumstances and condition;
- the facts have been reviewed by the Family Court and a Judge has certified that the criteria laid down in the law have been met; and
- there is a medical practitioner prepared to provide the assistance approved by the Court.
Palmer’s proposal calls for medical and medical standards to be met.
“I suggest that such a proposal has the advantage of avoiding health professionals having to take responsibility for decisions about whether the person should be permitted to die,” the former prime minister said in his lecture.
“Medical people have raised many issues concerning the ethical dilemmas they face in such situations. Making it a judicial decision obviates those difficulties.”
Nonetheless, he said that medical practitioners do make decisions now on whether to continue treatment which is why the court system should be involved if changes to the law are made regarding this issue.
“Legislating for medical ethics is not desirable. The decision could be made by a Judge examining the papers and conducting a hearing if necessary to see that the requirements of the law had been satisfied,” he said.
“Making such decisions in the Family Court should eliminate the scope for unseemly adversarial contests, since the court is relatively informal and has many facilities for family conferencing.”
He reminded those listening that “the law itself is a human construct, designed to promote the interests of human beings in the world in which they live.”