A Select Committee of New Zealand’s Parliament has been hearing public submissions on the End of Life Choice Bill. First introduced in Parliament in August 2017 and went to first reading in December before being referred to the committee, the bill would provide a legal regime for citizens to access medical assistance in dying similar to “right to die” legislation in other countries, including Canada. Many of the submissions to MPs sitting on the committee have focused on personal accounts from people whose loved ones died poorly without the right to assisted dying. Led by former cabinet minister, Maryan Street, the End of Life Choice Society has taken an active role in putting together submissions for the committee.
However, much of the interest in the legislation is being driven by goings on elsewhere in Wellington, specifically the criminal trial of Susan Austen. The trial is expected to last three more weeks and seems to be as much about the policy choice facing New Zealand’s Pariament as about the accused in the case.
Austen, 67, a retired teacher, has been charged in the death of Annemarie Treadwell, who was 77 when she died. Austen has pleaded not guilty to the charges of assisting in Treadwell’s suicide and to the importation of the barbiturate pentobarbitone, implicated in Treadwell’s death. The jury in the trial has heard evidence from Treadwell’s daughter that she suspected her mother was planning to commit suicide. Treadwell had recently joined Exit, an assisted dying group in New Zealand, and Austen was the chair of the organization’s Wellington chapter. She had also recently made a submission to the Select Committee on the End of Life Choice Bill through Maryan Street’s organization. Justice Susan Thomas has reminded the jury that the trial is not about their views on assisted dying, nor anyone else’s, but about their findings in respect of the law as it currently stands.
It bears mentioning that the End of Life Choice Bill would not protect Austen were it law today, as the legislation is designed to allow only for physician-assisted death in certain circumstances. However, the case continues to drive the discussion of the need for a legislative framework amongst civil society. The Select Committee hears public submissions until March 6, and is expected to author a report due to New Zealand’s Parliament September 27.