Auckland, New Zealand – New Zealand voters are expected to have voted “yes” in a referendum to legalize euthanasia when preliminary results are released on Friday. This underlines the consistent public support for the measure and the support of the newly returned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Polls have backed the legislation, one of two referendums that were presented to voters with over 60 percent during the general election earlier this month. A “yes” means New Zealand is joining a small group of nations and territories, including the Netherlands and Canada, that have legalized assisted dying.
The path to the End of Life Choice Bill, which coincided with the election, began five years ago with lawyer Lecretia Seales.
After being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, Seales was desperate to stay alive, but her husband Matt Vickers said she was frustrated with the lack of personal autonomy for people with terminal diseases and the lack of political will to address the problem.
Seales brought a case to court in which he argued that under the Crimes Act, euthanasia should not be interpreted as suicide as it was not a question of life or death, but of whether a person was suffering on the way to an inevitable death.
She also argued that it was her right not to be subjected to cruel or degrading treatment under the Bill of Rights Act.
Lecretia Seales (pictured with husband Matt Vickers) took legal action to review options for terminally ill people after she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. She died in 2015.
Seales failed to win her case and died in 2015, hours after her family received a negative judgment from Wellington High Court.
“The case has put the subject in the spotlight and I don’t think the people of New Zealand were prepared for the case to be the end of the story,” said Vickers, who continued his wife’s campaign after her death.
“Regardless of the result, New Zealanders have an opportunity to have their say, which is fantastic,” he said. “When you’re for or against – one way or another – there has been a lot of discussion. The whole process has been incredibly positive. “
45 Protective Measures
Legislation, which is automatically passed when the referendum is passed, empowers a doctor to administer or prescribe a lethal dose of medication to competent adults suffering excruciatingly from an incurable disease that would likely end their lives within six months .
Among the more than 45 safeguards that must be met, the person must apply to voluntarily and directly end their life and not want to end their life solely because of their advanced age or disability. Two doctors would have to agree to the decision.
New Zealanders have not taken the subject lightly.
Heather Gregory’s husband killed himself when the pain from liver cancer, which he had suffered for 10 years, grew too great and palliative care could not alleviate his suffering.
Gregory suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her husband’s suicide and says she continues to be afraid six years later. She believes a legal right to euthanasia would have made it less traumatic.
“Death is not quick or pleasant,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be like that. Had there been a choice for a safe option, he could have asked to end his life when he was ready. We could have avoided what was a traumatic experience for me and my children. “
Heather Gregory’s husband Richard took his own life when he could no longer endure the pain of advanced liver cancer. She says legalized euthanasia would have been less traumatic [Supplied]Michelle Kaufman is against euthanasia [Supplied]
Michelle Kaufman from Family Life International NZ is against the bill.
As a practicing Catholic, she has always been passionate about life issues – from conception to death.
Her position on euthanasia was also shaped by the experience of a friend who outlived her final prognosis by 10 years.
Kaufman says if euthanasia had been available, her friend would not have had that extra time.
“Doctors get it wrong,” she said. “Human life is such a precious gift that you should be there and be cared for until you naturally leave this world. The Latin word for compassion is to walk with another in time of suffering. If you go you don’t kill her. “
Perspective of the terminally ill
Stuart Armstrong was told he wouldn’t make it past 58 years, but this year he was celebrating his 60th birthday. He has an aggressive form of prostate cancer that is spreading to his bones. For him, assisted dying is a matter of choice.
“If I meet the long list of criteria and I’m still fine, then I just won’t. When it gets gnarled, I want to die on horseback with my wife beside me and surrounded by friends and family. I want to die on my terms.
Stuart Armstrong has aggressive prostate cancer. He wants the chance to die on his own terms [Supplied]“I also want to limit the stress for my friends and family who see me suffer. There is no dignity in that. I don’t believe in God, but for those who do, they can suffer for their God if they wish, but it is not for me. “
Researcher Jessica Young, who is doing her PhD on assisted death, said terminally ill people who participated in her study welcomed an option.
Participants found consolation in the agency’s freedom of timing and manner of death, and felt that the status quo was decided by those who were not at the end of their lives.
“Much of the research was done on healthy people, not people at the end of their lives,” said Young. “It is very good for healthy adults to discuss the subject, but until you die you do not know what it is like.”
While those opposed to euthanasia fear that the most vulnerable will be harmed or that healthy people will choose to euthanize, international research suggests that the practice is not being abused widely, says Young.
According to data from the Netherlands and Oregon, assisted death does not increase the risk for people classified as vulnerable – including the elderly, women, people without health insurance and the disabled.
In New Zealand, where 16.5 percent of the population are Māori, some have rejected euthanasia as a disruption of the sacred transition between life and death, says Selah Hart, CEO of Hāpai te Hauora (Māori Public Health).
“There is an understanding and a connection with the spirits and gods in which we recognize the passing of an individual as a natural process that should not be manipulated.”
Education is crucial
Ella Henry, Associate Professor of Māori Development at Auckland University of Technology, notes that there are also greater concerns about equitable access to health care for Māori.
“We have seen our people die an average of 10 years earlier than mainstream groups from the types of diseases and health conditions that are an ongoing consequence of colonial history,” she said.
Jacinda Ardern, who returned as prime minister in a landslide victory earlier this month, supported the bill [Marty Melville/AFP]“Whether this is due to the loss of an economic base we once had, which means we are more likely to live in poverty and be over-represented on some of the worst social indicators. This means that we do not have equal access to health care and that we are vulnerable for long periods of time. “
Despite distrust of the system, recently published polls by Curia Market Research show that 53 percent of people support euthanasia in all seven Māori voters. This follows research by Horizon, in which 72 percent of Māori said they would vote for the change.
The final result of the referendum will be confirmed on November 6th and the government will receive a yes by October 2021 to implement the changes.
Hart says education will be critical to ensuring that the legislation is fully understood by every New Zealand family, including Māori.
“Officials have to support our people so they don’t slip through the cracks, which has traditionally been the case with most policy changes,” said Hart.