New Zealand Attorney General apparently confused on issue of referral for euthanasia

Sean Murphy*

Chris Finlayson, the Attorney General of New Zealand, has issued a report on a euthanasia bill that has been introduced by Member of Parliament David Seymour, the leader and only sitting member of ACT New Zealand.

This bill includes protection of conscience provisions that were considered by Mr. Finlayson in his report (paragraphs 62-65).  The Attorney General stated that the provisions require an objecting medical practitioner to refer a patient to another physician for euthanasia, and acknowledged that this infringed freedom of conscience guaranteed by New Zealand’s Bill of Rights.  However, he believed this to be consistent with the Bill of Rights:

I consider that the limit is justified for the effective functioning of the regime for assisted dying created by the Bill.  In particular, I consider that the requirement to identify another medical practitioner is necessary to meet the objective of the Bill and is the most minimal impairment of the right possible.(para. 64)

The Attorney General appears to be confused on this point.

In fact, Section 7(2) of the bill requires only that the patient be told that he may contact the “SCENZ Group” (euthanasia coordination/facilitation service) to obtain the name of a euthanasia practitioner or physician willing to assist in the process.  It is up to the patient to initiate contact with the SCENZ Group, and the bill does not require a physician to assist the patient to do so.  This does not amount to referral to a euthanasia practitioner.

The distinction is important because physicians who object to euthanasia for reasons of conscience often refuse to refer patients for the procedure on the grounds that doing so would make them parties to homicide.  This issue is the focus of an important constitutional challenge in Canada, where the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is attempting to compel unwilling physicians to make effective referrals for euthanasia and assisted suicide.

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